In my very first post on this blog, I commented (disparagingly, of course) on the silliness of calling a fourth-place team "Champions" while the clear class of a league is lumped in with the losers. That seems to be the theme of the year in football (meaning, of course, real football, not that N.F.L. variety where you run for a few seconds and then discuss things).
I refer, of course, to last night's MLS Cup Final match between the Los Angeles Galaxy (a team that finished tied for first in the West, with 48 points -- 12 wins, 12 draws, 6 losses) and Real Salt Lake (which finished fifth out of eight, with 40 points -- 11 wins, 7 draws, and 12 losses). Because RSL managed to score a single goal during the match, and did a trifle better in the inevitable penalty shootout, they get to pretend they are actual champions of something; while the Galaxy, which did pretty well all season long, and better than all but one of the teams it's grouped with, are also-rans, no better than the other teams in the minds of those who care about football.
The MLS result isn't quite as egregious as the WPS playoff system; at least MLS is divided -- needlessly, in my opinion -- into two conferences, and teams from one conference don't play teams in the other conference as often as they do teams in their own conference; so the team that wins the conference may or may not be the best team in the league that year. Having two conferences necessitates a single playoff match, between the two winners, to determine a champion. Greed necessitates a prolonged playoff season, making the regular season almost meaningless. A team can struggle all season long, as RSL did, squeak into the playoffs by the skin of their soccer balls, and get themselves together mentally just in time to beat a few teams that were marginally better through the regular season. And if they are the last team standing after this unnecessary exercise, then they get to be referred to as 2009 Champions for all time.
Apologists for this income-oriented determination of rankings will point out that surviving the regular season in sufficient shape to qualify for the playoffs, however low their status at that point, is a triumph sufficient unto itself. Well, that's fine. Let them comfort themselves with the thought that they survived and, eventually, triumphed, while other teams, who actually won more games than they lost, fell by the way. Let them put a little embroidered star or trophy on their uniforms next season, and let them charge a heftier fee for sponsorships. Let them put their trophy in their brand-new glass case out in whatever Salt Lake suburb they call home. Let them call themselves Champions.
Those of us who know, know better.