Oh, I'm late with my playoff picks? Um, Seattle over DC United in the final. Those teams are hot, and it's all about getting momentum at the right time.
I was going to once again moan and complain about pointless FIFA windows taking time away from important things, like the MLS playoffs. But if MLS wanted to plow through this window, they would. They seem happy with an early December MLS Cup, they seem happy with a big break right before Thanksgiving instead of taking on college and pro football, and at least MLS Cup this year isn't going to be Toronto-Seattle III. As the Seattle-Portland series showed, other things besides FIFA cause headaches and roadblocks to MLS scheduling. I think an unspoken reason that MLS doesn't schedule games during the window, is so that if necessary, they can schedule games in this window. Some day MLS will rule the stadiums and dictate the airwaves, and penny-ante dog-and-pony shows like the Seattle Seahawks and New York Yankees can drop everything and watch MLS playoff games, just like the rest of America. That day is not this.
There's also talk that MLS will ditch home-and-home, go to single elimination playoffs, and wrap everything up by Thanksgiving. That would mean MLS took my advice on something, though, and they haven't done that since folding Chivas USA (and that took ten freaking years).
There are a couple of silly but vaguely intertwined issues I'd like to bore you with, and they center around the New York Red Bulls. We have perhaps insufficiently congratulated the Red Bulls for winning their third Supporters Shield in five seasons. Weirdly, they did it under three different head coaches - Petke, Marsch and now Armas. Even more weirdly, they're not the first MLS team to do this - the Crew won Shields in 2004, 2008 and 2009, under Andrulis, Schmid and Warzycha. The Crew and Red Bulls trail DC United and the Galaxy in total Shield wins. DC United has won four Shields - never with the same coach. From 2006 to 2009, four different coaches won the Shield - and two different teams, DC and the Crew.
Such a silly league. But let's talk competitive balance for a hot second, before we segue to something even more stupid. The Eastern Conference this year is guaranteed to host MLS Cup, and said host will be gunning for its first championship ever. If Atlanta or New York succeed - well, there will be gnashing of teeth everywhere up the Atlantic Seaboard from Orlando to Foxboro. But MLS will have his thirteenth champion in twenty-three seasons. Even if Portland or Kansas City win on the road, MLS will still be averaging a new champion every two seasons. I consider twelve different champions to be a sufficiently impressive achievement, considering the league only started with ten teams. Three original MLS teams have yet to win, counting New York - but then, three original Football League teams have also yet to win the championship, and they've been at it off and on since 1889. (Stoke, Notts County and Accrington, if you care.) (Dallas and New England are the other two here, if you care.)
I bring up competitive balance because the European Super League has flarped its way back into the discussion. Usually, despite my deeply held aversion to contrariness, I support any suggestion of a European Super League, because the people offended by such an idea turn such a lovely shade of purple at the thought.
But I can't insult your intelligence this time around, I'm afraid. The key word - well, the key neologism - is "Brexit." Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City are not going to join a breakaway closed continental league, while the United Kingdom simultaneously leaves the European Union. Even if the Premier League was holding those teams back financially, which, apparently not. Maybe Real Madrid and Barcelona are sick and tired of their childhood playmates, but if they do break free of La Liga, they won't have English teams to play with.
There, wasn't that easy?
One of the things I enjoy doing when this sort of thing pops up is comparing who is invited to the theoretical prom, and who has been told to stay home and play Football Manager. Wikipedia – and don't you dare tell me this subject deserves more intensive research – reminds us of the G-14, a forgotten but not gone assortment of Euro soccer royalty with a stirring slogan paraphrased from Dumas, "All for us and nothing for you!"
The Gang of Eighteen, until it receded into the shadows ten years ago:
Real Madrid and Barcelona, with Valencia added after founding
Manchester United and Liverpool, with Arsenal as an afterthought (no, really!)
Inter, Juve, and AC Milan
PSG and Marseille, with Lyon added afterwards
Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, with Bayer Leverkuesen invited later
Ajax and PSV
Well, this month that eighteen has shrunk to eleven. And it turns out there's a little more churn at the popular kids table than you'd expect.
Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool, Juve, AC Milan, PSG and Bayern Munich carry over from the original G-14 to the Big Eleven. (We should come up with a name for these clubs, besides "greedy jerks".) Arsenal has been promoted from afterthought to founder. The other two teams, Chelsea and Manchester City, didn't even rate inclusion in the G-18 back in pioneer times. England has gone up in the world.
According to this ridiculous, silly and unworkable plan, there would be five additional teams included that would be at risk of relegation. (Unworkable, but not unprecedented – the Sao Paulo league in Pele's time had similar guarantees for the big clubs, and the devil took the hindmost.) Dortmund, Inter, Marseille have been demoted, while Roma and Atletico Madrid have been raised up to the second tier.
Valencia, Leverkuesen, Porto, Ajax and PSV have been dropped entirely. So has Lyon, which is surprising considering how Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski promised they would win the Champions League back in the first edition of "Soccernomics." No, that will never stop being funny to me.
The temptation to compare attendance numbers to the list of chosen teams is monstrous, but misleading. Unless you control for ticket prices, facility size, and so forth, you'll get a misleading picture of who is profitable and who isn't. But it looks like other German teams should be pretty annoyed with Bayern always trying to ditch them, at least if you believe everything you read on Reddit.
Because if teams are going by size and popularity, instead of silly, pointless trivialities like winning, then some very different candidates for "promotion" and "relegation" emerge. It would be very funny if down the road Newcastle and West Ham were judged by their popularity rather than by the content of their character. And the Old Firm isn't just blowing smoke when they invite themselves into things like the Premier League or the Super League. I'd thought Inland Revenue slowed that down, but apparently not.
Would such a thing ever work? It won't ever be tried, is my guess, but if all-out bureaucratic World Soccer War did break out, I think the big European clubs would win. Lionel Messi and that rapist who plays for Juve aren't celebrated for their national team achievements. The World Cup has been the primary means to confer international fame and fortune for decades, with the exceptions of George Best and possibly Johan Cruyff. Messi doesn't need Argentina success any more than Best needed Northern Ireland. If this becomes a trend, and the world's top players feel they can live without the World Cup? It's just a matter of the big clubs making it worth the public relations hit, and I think they theoretically could, just as soon as the status quo becomes more trouble than it's worth.
If you're wondering when the big clubs will give up on the idea of a Super League, the answer is never. It's just too effective a negotiating tactic. As long as UEFA, FIFA and domestic leagues are demanding the services of the same players, and as long as it's the big clubs who pay the majority of their salary and take the majority of the risk, then there will always be a G-Insert Number Here.
It's also worth keeping an eye on this sort of thing from North America, because this is our future - well, at least the future we want, if we want strong and healthy clubs. We're going to see it play out if and how MLS continues to grow, and how tempted the larger Mexican teams would be to rock the boat. Because FIFA isn't exactly likely to strip the World Cup from the US, Mexico and Canada, those federations will have a window of three years or so to wring considerable concessions out of CONCACAF. After all, CONCACAF will be utterly irrelevant between December 2022 and July 2026. The Gold Cup doesn't even have the Confederations Cup as a carrot for those years, and the television rights to watch, if current trends hold, Costa Rica snooze to qualification will be selling like cold cakes. If the powers that be aren't planning some serious strong-arm tactics after the Qatar Cup, then I've badly misread the fine gentlemen running the game.
Unless sometime between now and June 2026, the big European clubs succeed in establishing the Super League, or forcing a compromise that allows players to shun national team labor. It would be highly amusing if, after all the trouble the USSF went through to land the World Cup, the one they get has its best players saving themselves for the 2026/2027 UEFA Friendship League.