Relegation needed for MLS

GARETH WHEELER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:59 AM ET

Ten wins in 30 games. A goal differential of minus-6. A team with only one road win in the regular season.

Your 2008 MLS Cup winner? It might just be the New York Red Bulls.

After disposing of Real Salt Lake 1-0 Saturday, the Red Bulls' fairy tale playoff run moves on to the MLS Cup against the Columbus Crew on Sunday.

The Crews' credentials speak for themselves: The top team in the league, finishing six points ahead of and winning four more games than any other team. If Columbus wins the MLS Cup, it will be deserved.

If the Red Bulls are victorious in the final, can we really call them the league's best team?

Not a chance!

Don't blame the Red Bulls, blame the system. The MLS uses a playoff system to determine its champion, much like the majority of North American professional sports.

The playoff system in other sports, whether hockey, baseball or basketball, has created exciting games, memorable moments and improbable winners.

In most cases, this system isn't in place for the above reasons -- it's to generate extra revenue. And in the case of the NFL, it's the closest possible way to determine a winner, considering the unbalanced and shorter schedule.

But the issue here is soccer, and why MLS goes against convention in the soccer world, using a playoff system.

The only other league of any significance using a playoff system is the Australian A-League. That league, much like MLS at its inception, doesn't have many teams.

When MLS had 10 teams, and in the case of the A-League (eight teams with two expansion teams entering next year), it was easier to justify the use of playoffs to drum up general interest and serve as a carrot for the players getting through the monotony of playing the same teams over and over again.

With MLS now sitting at 14 teams, with two more to be added in the next two years, and two more teams shortly after that, a playoff system will not be needed for those purposes.

CHANGE IS GOOD

In the coming years, MLS should get rid of its divisions and unify the Supporters' Shield (regular-season points leader -- think Presidents Trophy in the NHL) with the MLS Cup to crown the regular-season points leader as champion. The regular season is where the true battle is waged: The fight for consistency, the fight against slipping up, where each game is a war; where points shall not be sacrificed.

MLS needs to create a balanced schedule, where each team plays each other home and home -- that's it. Over the short term, it would mean fewer games, but existing conflicts with the FIFA's international schedule and headaches created by the CONCACAF Champions League could be avoided. And if it really wanted to make up for lost revenue, MLS could create a tournament cup competition to be played throughout the season in the mould of the FA Cup.

Until the competition structure is changed, MLS will continue to stand as an outsider in international soccer. It's time MLS got on board with the rest of the world.

If MLS is looking for acceptance among the world's best players to convince them it is an legit stage on which to ply their trade, then it must get rid of this foreign playoff system.

And while MLS reforms to get on page with the rest of the world, why not recognize FIFA's international calendar and demand grass soccer specific stadiums?

And a more intriguing idea would be to introduce the tried and tested threat of relegation.

The possibility of teams being sent down to an inferior league (competition and revenue generation) is the ultimate catalyst for organizational competitiveness. Every game matters with relegation, something that can't be said for the rest of professional sport in North America, with teams electing to tank to get better draft picks.

If MLS wanted to go down the relegation road, look no further than the United Soccer Leagues.

As evidenced through the success of the USL's Montreal Impact, the quality of play is there.

Where the USL lacks in comparison to MLS is in infrastructure, promotion, profitability and coverage.

The bottom two teams in MLS go down, the top two in the USL First Division come up -- now there's true competition.

A system such as this would create a true North American soccer culture. Relegation would be more of a risk to the bigger teams, but that should be the essence of sport. It's all about competition, survival of the fittest, and scraping and clawing for your territory.


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