Sunday, August 23, 2009

Champions. Huh.

The inaugural season of the Women's Professional Soccer league is behind us now. The Los Angeles Sol dominated the season completely, with only three losses against twelve wins, in twenty matches. This magnificent performance earned them, by the league's peculiar play-0ff scheme, an automatic berth in the final match.

Their opponents, the league's New Jersey club (mysteriously called Sky Blue FC, even though they wore orange every time I saw them play), finished the regular season in fourth place. They barely qualified for the playoffs at all, and in order to reach the final they had to play away matches against the third-place and second-place teams.

This odd scheme was made necessary by two things: first, the league played this season with only seven teams, a number not lending itself easily to any kind of playoff arrangement. And second, the parochial need of the league's founders to have some kind of playoff arrangement at all.

Money, I'm sure, played some part in the decision to have playoffs. There was a reasonably good turnout at the stadium in California where the match was played, although the first playoff match drew only 4,217 and the second (the "super semifinal") only about 800 more; and all three games were televised live on a minor soccer-oriented cable channel. All that's to the good, if you believe that there is a place in the world for women's professional soccer. Next year, when two more teams are added to the league (plans for a tenth team, in Dallas, seem to have fallen apart), I, for one, hope the league will see a profit, though that may be too ambitious for a start-up organization featuring women playing a sport most Americans dismiss as foreign.

But, back to the championship match. The fourth-place team from New Jersey beat the league-leading California team, 1 to 0. That makes the fourth-place team Champions, while the team that was far and away the best all season is ... an also-ran. There is something patently unfair about that, and something that tarnishes the meaning of "championship."

The United States is a great big country. When baseball and basketball and football leagues were forming, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was expensive and difficult for a team to travel the long distances required. That's why the American League, the National League, the NBA and the NFL were originally divided up geographically. Since the New York team could not easily get to California for games -- remember, until the 1950s it took a couple of days or longer to make that trip by train -- the teams in the east played each other, and the teams in the west played each other, and the best of each side met to play off. That makes perfect sense.

But this is the 21st Century. Getting the team from Boston to Los Angeles may be a logistical headache for the poor sap that has to make sure all the bags get on the plane, but it's quick and relatively inexpensive to make the trip. No great obstacle. So the Boston Breakers play the LA Sol and FC Gold Pride (from somewhere around the San Francisco Bay) about as easily as they play the Washington (DC) Freedom. Why, then, do we need to have playoffs at all?

Look at any football league in Europe: there are no playoffs. It isn't necessary. The champion is the team that demonstrates superiority week after week, the way the LA Sol did in this league. Those leagues developed in smallish countries -- you can drive from one corner of England to another in about the time it takes to drive from San Antonio to El Paso -- so each team could play each other team the same number of times, home and away. The result of this is that, at the end of the season, you know from the standings who the champion is.

In the NFL today, teams play opponents in their own division more frequently than they play teams outside that division (those wimps only play one game a week). Likewise the NBA. Teams from the National and American leagues rarely play each other at all. So if you want to know who the champion is, you have to have playoffs.

The Women's Professional Soccer league doesn't need playoffs to determine a champion: they had a clear champion the day the regular season ended: the Los Angeles Sol. But the New Jersey team gets to call themselves champions.