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Monday, September 10, 2012

A thought experiment: What would NASL's split-season plan look like this season?

Posted by on Mon, Sep 10, 2012 at 6:29 PM

WakeMed Soccer Park, in wide angle
Last week, the North American Soccer League (NASL), which represents the second tier of the North American game, announced what amounts to a radical restructuring of the competition’s format.

In its first two seasons, the eight teams of NASL have played 28-game seasons, followed by a three-round, six-team elimination playoff. But beginning next year, the league will play two short round-robin competitions of 14 games apiece. The winners of the two competitions will meet in a single-game championship final.

As Neil Morris noted last week, the new format bears a strong resemblance to the Apertura and Clausura format seen in several Latin American countries. (Until NASL settles on a naming convention, Triangle Offense plans to use these words, which mean “opening” and “closing,” to refer to the two short seasons. Help us make it stick!)

There has been spirited discussion about the changes, including the institution of a month-long July break, which would reduce the number of games played in Code Red conditions.

Here at Triangle Offense, we’ve long discussed the value of playoffs in soccer. A strong argument can be made that there is little or no relationship between a team’s performance in the regular season and in the post-season. Three years running, in fact, the winner of the second-division post-season playoffs has been a low-seeded team (fifth-seed Montreal in 2009, eighth-seeded Puerto Rico in 2010, sixth-seeded Minnesota in 2011).

Today’s post is concerned with a different issue. Many online commentators have worried that attendance will suffer late in the year as fans of poorly performing teams lose interest. We’ll be as interested as everyone else to see if those fears are realized.

In an effort to imagine the effect of the new system, we decided to take this season’s results and put them into Apertura and Clausura tables.

First, the Apertura:

Unsurprisingly, early-season colossus San Antonio wins the Apertura. They are now assured a place in the single-game post-season championship. Puerto Rico, with a four-point edge over third-place Tampa Bay, is in the driver's seat for staking a claim to the best overall record should San Antonio also win the Clausura.

Here’s the Clausura, updated through last weekend’s results:

What we see is very interesting. Tampa Bay is in first place, but barely. With three games to play, Tampa Bay has yet to play second-place Carolina, who have a crucial game in hand. That tie is scheduled for Sept. 19 (in Tampa) and Sept. 22 (in Cary). These two games would be hugely important for determining the winner of the Clausura—almost like an in-season two-legged tie.

What about the rest of the league? Would fans of the other teams have a rooting interest? Certainly Fort Lauderdale is very much in the hunt, but with only two games remaining, they are under pressure to win both.

San Antonio fans would be concerned about the Scorpions recovering their early-season form in time for the championship game.

The Minnesota Stars are seven points off the pace, and with three games to play, they have an uphill fight. They will have to collect all 9 points to catch up with Tampa Bay and the others ahead of them, who also will need to contribute to their own demise.

Puerto Rico is also seven points off the pace with only three games to play, but they're in a slightly better position. If San Antonio should somehow win the Clausura, Puerto Rico would need only to finish ahead of Tampa Bay in total points to get into the championship game. And they're only three points behind the Rowdies, as seen in this cumulative table from the NASL website on Sept. 10:

The table on Sept. 10, 2012
  • nasl.com
  • The table on Sept. 10, 2012

Atlanta and Edmonton, however, are eliminated. Although the Silverbacks could finish with 20 points by winning its three remaining games, it will take more than 20 points to win the Clausura: Carolina and Tampa will face each other twice, which means at least one will finish with a minimum of 22 points.

Will Atlanta fans stop caring? Perhaps. But on the other hand, the Silverbacks have an opportunity to spoil things for others: Their three remaining opponents are Fort Lauderdale, San Antonio and Puerto Rico.

Edmonton, with three home games remaining, also stands to suffer from fan apathy. But on the other hand, those three games are also consequential: Carolina, Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale.

But even if Edmonton and Atlanta were to see dwindling crowds under this scenario, they’re facing that exact problem right now, even if they’re both technically within reach of Minnesota for the sixth and final playoff spot.

It is true that under the present system, Edmonton and Atlanta have a shot at the playoffs, which is better than they would be faring under the Apertura-Clausura system. But one might have to ask: Do these teams really deserve to have playoff ambitions this late in such dismal seasons?

Based on our thought experiment, it seems that, contrary to the fears about fans tuning out late in the year once their teams are eliminated, it's possible there will be more intense interest at this point in the season. Under the present arrangement, with its generous opportunities for post-season redemption (six of eight teams qualifying for the playoffs), there’s little incentive for fans to pay attention to what other teams are doing. Under the Clausura scenario in this post, fans would have reason to pay close attention to other results.

There are, however, scenarios that could lead to an ugly end to the regular season. For sake of argument, imagine that San Antonio, the Apertura champion, and Tampa Bay, the owner of the second-best overall record, are playing on the last day of the season. Imagine further that Tampa Bay is sitting in third place, a couple of points behind San Antonio and Carolina, who are vying for first place in the Clausura. If San Antonio wins the game against the Rowdies and thus, the Clausura title, Tampa Bay would get to be the opponent in the championship by virtue of having the second-best overall record. But if Tampa wins the game, it will hurt them to do so if Carolina happens to win its final game, which would give the RailHawks the Clausura title.

Obviously, then, the pragmatic thing for Tampa Bay to do would be to intentionally lose to San Antonio.

How might the league avoid such a travesty on the last day? One practice that might help (although not in this specific instance) would be to play the last round of the regular season at the same time, the way it’s done around the world. Another possibility is to institute a squad-strength rule for the last game (or two or three) of the season, which would prevent teams from fielding reserves. (Perhaps teams would be required to field 10 outfield players who have played an average of 45 minutes per game apiece during the season.)

Although there are some risks associated with the new season and championship format, we are optimistic that these changes will be beneficial. Greater emphasis will be placed on the regular season, and most teams will likely be playing consequential games up to the end.

And NASL, if you’re reading this, how about calling the two seasons “Apertura” and “Clausura?” These words are more interesting than “spring season” and “fall season” or “first half” and “second half.” They would also help underscore the fact that these two competitions are, in fact, separate seasons, not halves of a single season. (A further benefit of these words: They might be useful in reaching out to Latino communities.)

Apertura, Clausura, Apertura, Clausura…

Neil Morris will join Brian Quarstad of IMS Soccer News in a discussion of these changes. Look for the NASL podcast on Tuesday.

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