Playoffs: Major League Soccer Style!

MLS 2015 Bracket

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What does Major League Soccer (MLS) do differently than most of the footballing world? One word says it all: PLAYOFFS! Most soccer leagues around the world do not have playoffs. The season is played; the team at the top of table wins the league. This is not the case in Major League Soccer. First, there is not one table; there are two tables in this league. Since the league covers a vast amount of land in two countries, the owners thought it best to split the league in to an Eastern and Western conference. In addition, the majority of games played by each team will occur within their own conference. Reducing wear and tear throughout the season, as most teams travel by air to matches was the thought behind this. This means there is not a balance schedule.

With the two expansion franchises of New York City FC and Orlando City SC that entered the league this year, this takes the total amount of teams to 20. At the beginning of the season with the expansion of these new teams, the commissioner announced an expansion of playoff teams to 12. Yes, that is right; more than 50% of the league gets a ticket in to the playoffs. This caused much consternation amongst MLS circles. Even though fans were and still are wary of this many teams obtaining access to the playoffs, almost every team was still involved in the playoff hunt in to the last month of the season. From a business perspective that was the goal to ensure fans were engaged for as long as possible since there is no promotion or regulation.

Six teams from each conference get in to the playoffs. The top seed from each conference obtains home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. The team with the best record overall no matter the conference has home field advantage for the MLS Cup if they make it to that point. This year that team is the New York Red Bulls. The first two seeded teams from each conference receives a bye while the third through six seeded teams compete in a one game knockout round match. The excitement is that once in the playoffs start anyone can win the cup. For most purest this does not seem fair as the team with the best record should be crown champion. In North American sports, this is the norm for over a century to have playoffs. The thinking is that if you really are the best then a team needs to play against the best with the highest pressure on them. The regular season is considered a ramp up to the playoffs and then finally to the MLS Cup match. There is not a right or wrong way to crown a champion; this is just another avenue to accomplish this.

Knockout round matches start October 28, 2015

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Our Quick Guide to the last 20 World Cups

World Cup Quiz

With England still the dominant force in World football, the World Cup in 1930 was set to start in Uruguay without them. Although the English FA had joined FIFA in 1906, the relationship with the British associations was fraught. In 1928, the British nations withdrew from FIFA, in a disagreement over payments to amateur players and the World Cup went on without them. Thirteen teams entered the original tournament. Many European teams chose not to compete because of the difficulty of travelling to South America. Uruguay took advantage, winning every game including 6-1 in the semi-final and a 4-1 win over Argentina in the final.

In 1934, Uruguay joined the British nations in not competing in the tournament held in Italy. They withdrew in protest that many European countries did not travel to South America 4 years earlier and are still the only champions not to defend their title. Italy needed a replay against Spain in the quarter finals (24 hours after the first match – can you imagine today’s players being asked to do that?) and extra-time in the final to see off Czechoslovakia and win the cup on their own soil.

The 1938 became synonymous with politics and the debate over the future of the tournament. Uruguay and Argentina didn’t compete because of the decision to hold the tournament in Europe for the second time in succession. The British FA’s were still at war with FIFA (reminds me of recent events with Sepp Blatter) so didn’t enter, Spain were excluded because of the civil war and Germany competed under the Nazi flag. Italy retained their crown with a 4-2 final victory over the emerging Hungary, who had beaten England 6-2 at Wembley 2 years earlier.

After a break of 12 years because of World War II, the tournament returned with Brazil as the host nation. The winner was decided by a final group, and as it turned out, the deciding match in this group is notable for the size of the crowd, with a reported 173,850 packed into the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro to see Uruguay win 2-1 and top the group as World Cup winners.

This was to be Hungary’s World Cup. 1954 in Switzerland saw them defeat South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3 in the group before scoring 4 past both Brazil and Uruguay (albeit after extra-time) in the knockout stages. By the time they faced West Germany again in the final they had amassed a 32 match unbeaten run. They were undone by West Germany 3-2, after being 2-0 up inside the first 8 minutes.

The 1958 World Cup was hosted in Sweden and should be remembered for the feat of one man, who is often forgotten when the history of the World Cup is told. Just Fontaine, a Moroccan-born player for France scores a remarkable 13 goals in the tournament. He is still the fourth highest goalscorer at all World Cups, only having competed in one. To put that in context, Miroslav Klose took 4 tournaments to get his 16 goals and Ronaldo took 3 tournaments to score his 15 World Cup goals. A remarkable feat that is often overshadowed by the fact that this was Brazil’s first World Cup win and the start of the Pele era – he was only 17.

The 1962 edition of the Word Cup returned to South America, Chile and this small country hosted a tournament of 16 teams in only 4 stadiums. Brazil’s team with Garrincha, Vava and Pele starring were unbeaten throughout and took the final 3-1 against Czechoslovakia and took back-to-back wins. They were immediately installed as favourites to win their hat-trick in the next World Cup.

England fans will tell you the only thing you need to remember about the 1966 World Cup was we won it. (West) Germany fans will tell you the only thing you need to remember about the 1966 World Cup was the Russian linesman. West Ham fans will tell you the only thing you need to remember about the 1966 World Cup was the fact that West Ham players dominated the final.

Mexico 70 was a one team tournament, with Brazil even winning the final 4-1 against Italy. It was the crowning glory of the Pele Brazil era, completing their third triumph after feeling that they were fouled out of the 1966 World Cup in England. The Jules Rimet trophy was given to them permanently and a new World Cup was to be designed for the next tournament.

1974 was the start of the experiment of staging groups for both the first and second rounds of the tournament. East Germany topped the group ahead of their fierce rivals, and hosts, West Germany in the first round. They couldn’t repeat these results in the second round as group winners Netherlands and West Germany qualified for the final. Gerd Muller scored the winner as the West Germans triumphed 2-1, Muller’s fourth goal of the competition to add to the 10 he scored in 1970.

Scotland travelled to Argentina in 1978 win genuine hopes of challenging for the title, but they returned home 8 days after they started with group stage elimination. Their consolation was a win over the much-fancied Netherlands in what was the Netherlands only loss on their march to the final. They couldn’t cope with the passion of the hosts and ended up losing their second final in succession. The scoreline was 3-1.

The 1982 World Cup had many high points – the Brazil v Italy match in the second phase was a great match – but the moment of the tournament was Marco Tardelli’s celebration as he scored the third Italy goal in the final against West Germany. It captures the passion that the world feels for football. The ugly side of football reared its head through Harald Schumacher’s assault on Patrick Battiston.

The 1986 World Cup belonged to one man. Loved and loathed in fairly equal measure the world over, Diego Armando Maradona won the World Cup single-handed. In a team full of players that even fanatical football fans had forgotten a year later, Maradona was a star – for me the greatest player of all time. It’s not often that an entire tournament is dominated by a single team, let alone a single player but the best goals, the best performances and the biggest controversy all belonged to one man.

Italia 90 was nearly England’s year again, but it wasn’t to be. The dominance of Maradona from four years earlier had faded and this was a World Cup lit up by stars that hadn’t been expected to shine before it began – Paul Gascogne, Toto Schillaci, Roger Milla and David Platt. But Maradona dragged every ounce out of his teammates and the West German machine worked through the gears to face each other in the final. After a (mostly) beautiful tournament played in a beautiful country, the final was an ugly affair. Argentina decided that attrition and a penalty shoot-out was their best chance of retaining their title and the match was a horrible spectacle. Fortunately the team that came to play football were marshalled through the more by Lothar Matthaus and lifted the trophy.

The decision to take the World Cup to the USA in 1994 was seen as a positive commercial move in taking the game to a new market, unlike the furore around the new market of Qatar in 2022. The tournament was considered a success in bringing the game to packed stadiums across the country. The tournament was dominated by Brazil and Italy and it was no surprise to see them face each other in the final. What was a surprise, however, was the 0-0 scoreline and THAT penalty miss – no, not Diana Ross in the Opening Ceremony, but Roberto Baggio in the final shoot-out. Brazil win again after a wait of 24 years.

France 1998 was a World Cup to behold, with global stars at the top of their game. Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Juan Sebastian Veron, Edgar Davids and Christian Vieiri all had fantastic tournaments. The biggest drama came off the pitch as Ronaldo was seemingly overcome by nerves the night before the final. Reports circulated around the press as he was omitted from the starting lineup only to be reinstated 45 minutes before kick-off. This unsettled Brazil and France (for France, read Zinedine Zidane) took control with a 3-0 win.

The 2002 edition of the World Cup took us to new frontiers as Japan and South Korea were hosts. Defending champions France crashed out of the group stage without a win and were joined on the plane home by Portugal and Argentina. Controversy followed South Korea in winning through against Italy and Spain to set up a semi-final showdown with Germany. The old guard won through and Germany faced Brazil in the final. Ronaldo put to bed his demons from four years earlier with both goals in a 2-0 Brazil triumph.
The 2006 World Cup became notable for the number of cards issued by referees, with 345 yellows and 28 red cards issued. One match between Netherlands and Portugal saw 4 reds and 16 yellows handed out – the match becoming known as the Battle of Nuremberg. English referee Graham Poll infamously showed 3 yellow cards to the same player! On a more positive note, the French were revived by the skill and grace of Zinedine Zidane to reach the final against Italy. Zidane imploded with a head butt deep into extra-time and the Italians won on penalties.
2010 saw some more of the good side (small as it is) of Sepp Blatter as the World Cup again ventured into pastures new – South Africa. The finalists from 4 years earlier – France and Italy – both finished bottom of their groups and didn’t make it to the knockout stages, that were dominated by Germany hitting 4 goals past both England and Argentina before meeting an efficient Spain team that won 1-0 in all their knockout games, including the final against an aggressive Dutch team.
Three results in particular stand out for me as the 2014 World Cup played out.

Netherlands 5-1 Spain
Germany 4-0 Portugal
Germany 7-1 Brazil
These were defining moments in a competition that rewarded attacking football. The much-vaunted battle between the best players in the World didn’t show as Cristiano Ronaldo limped into and out of the tournament and Lionel Messi’s teammates were woefully off-colour, particularly Angel Di Maria. No surprise with the results above that Germany won the cup and are current World Champions.

Intelligent Footballers

I’ve been thinking about which players, past of present, would be top of the league in Footie Quiz? Much has been said about players such as Bobby Moore, Xavi and Andrea Pirlo being intelligent footballers, but what about intelligence off the field? Gazza had a great football brain but seemed to lack common sense and self-control off it; David Beckham is often looked upon as stupid but has managed to amass a fortune the rest of us can only dream about. What about players past and present? How do they fare in the intelligence stakes?

Current Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet may take some stopping (especially among keepers who are usually regarded as mad) as he has a Degree in Law and Political Science, and can speak four languages – English, French, Dutch and German. I think that with his experience in playing in Belgium and his national team he would probably have the Belgian Pro-League as his specialist subject-

One player that I always thought had an on the pitch football intelligence about him was Dennis Bergkamp. And Bergkamp got himself a degree in medical engineering at the University of Bath during his time at Arsenal. Known for his fear of flying, I don’t think that Dennis would like to go overseas to find the answers to his questions so I think that he would prefer to answer questions on his home town club Ajax.

When I started to look into intelligent footballers I kept coming across the name of Frank Lampard. I dismissed this as the media misunderstanding the fact that he has written loads of (children’s) books with a level of intelligence. So I looked a little further and in fact he has an IQ of 150, which puts him in the top 0.5% of the world population and marked by MENSA as the level of genius. To give you some idea of what an IQ of 150 means, Albert Einstein had an IQ of 160! Being a player that has played in 20 of the 23 completed Premier League seasons I think that his specialist subject could only be the Premier League.

I’ve seen two footballers in particular get involved with the higher-brow television quiz shows and they are Clarke Carlisle and Matt Le Tissier, and both were contestants on Channel 4’s Countdown. Carlisle made it to a third episode before being defeated and as a bit of a journeyman pro, I’d expect him to be able to answer questions on the Football League.

While Le Tissier netted another hat-trick with three wins on the show and made his name in his playing career as a one club man. That club was Southampton and I can’t see anywhere past his beloved Saints as the subject where he would score the most points.

Having an intelligence on the football pitch doesn’t always follow that the player has intelligence in real life, but these footballers have shown that they are skilled in more than just football. If I was looking at the best odds of which players would come up in my Mastermind ‘intelligent footballers’ specialist subject my money would be on Frank Lampard.


Klopp to Liverpool


As Liverpool FC make the announcement that Jurgen Klopp has been named their latest manager, a lot has been written about whether he will be successful. I think that Liverpool have found an identikit manager for the way the club has been directed by Fenway Sports Group since they took over.

What do I mean?
Well, I can see big parallels between the running of Liverpool and that of Borussia Dortmund during Klopp’s time in charge there. Brendan Rodgers had to deal with losing big name players, and Klopp had the same pressures at Dortmund. Liverpool will probably maintain that they only lost their players under duress but the fact remains that some big stars departed the club:
When?                         Who?                          Notes
Summer 2015                Steven Gerrard             Would have stayed if offered a coaching role

Summer 2015                Raheem Sterling          Wanted Champions League football

Summer 2014                Luis Suarez                    Wanted Barcelona

Summer 2013                Andy Carroll                   Sold for £15 million

Borussia Dortmund couldn’t compete financially with the biggest clubs in Europe, with their national rivals Bayern Munich being one of those teams they couldn’t match Euro for Euro. They simply had to sell when the price was right, or when they couldn’t match the wages when the bigger clubs came in-

When?                             Who?                    Notes
Summer 2014          Robert Lewandowski – out of contract, went to Bayern Munich

Summer 2013          Mario Gotze – scored winner in World Cup Final

Summer 2012          Shinji Kagawa – has now returned

Summer 2011           Nuri Sahin – out of contract, Bundesliga player of the season

Unless Liverpool make major changes to their income, such as a new much bigger stadium or regular progress to the latter stages of the Champions League year after year then Klopp will be working under the same conditions again. He will have to act as Klopp The Dortmund manager when he is working as Klopp the Liverpool manager. And this is the main reason that I think in the long-term he will be a success. He will be operating in the same way under very similar conditions to these he experienced when he was successful.

Similarity is how top managers thrive. Mourinho has been successful with big money clubs – Porto (big money for the Portuguese league), Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid have all afforded him petty big transfer budgets and he has generally come up trumps. One of the main reasons I think that David Moyes failed at Manchester United. He had a defensive team working under a really tight budget and working his scouting team hard to find bargains at Everton. The jump to the world’s biggest club, fans expecting attacking, flowing football and the choice of the best players money could buy was too much for him. Klopp won’t have the same issues as he is swapping like for like.

The one quote that really stands out from his unveiling was the following “If I am sitting here in four years, we will win one title [piece of silverware] in this time.” This is a man of great confidence and someone who has done it before. I think that Klopp is a manager who has a vision for how he wants his team to play and he understands his matchbook. Borussia Dortmund played hard at the transition or breakdown and to achieve this, Klopp and his team worked on fitness levels. The players were able to get back into formation quickly and break at pace when they win the ball. I think that trying to achieve this mid-season is far more difficult to do than when putting in the ground work in pre-season. Because of this, I think that Liverpool may struggle with fitness levels this season and maybe the players will not be able to apply Klopp’s methods. After this season, I think that Klopp is right that he’ll at least be challenging for the Premier League title.