April 9, 2014
By Charles Cuttone
NASL tweaks playoff format, eyes berth in CONCACAF Champions League
The North American Soccer League plans to keep its new playoff format long into the future, and hopes that eventually the winner of that playoff format will get an automatic berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. But in the meantime, the league's goal is to get a team into the continental tournament through the U.S. Open Cup.
NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson thinks the league is perhaps ready to attain that goal. "I think clubs have made enough improvements in the off season upgrading their rosters and preparing their teams. It's an important goal for all of our teams, here in the U.S. and the Amway Cup in Canada.
ďItís a chance for us to go out and compete against everyone and sort of measure how well you are doing, so we take that competition very serious. Itís rooted in the history of the game here in this country and others, and winning it would be a great honor, and making it to the champions league is something that's very important for us."
Last year, the Carolina Railhawks advanced as far as the quarterfinals before losing to Real Salt Lake. The league champion New York Cosmos didn't enter the Open Cup because the competition started earlier than their entry into the league for the fall season.
Peterson says the NASL thinks it should have a direct path to the Champions League. "It's actually so important for us that we've asked the CONCACAF people to consider giving us our own entry. We feel at this point in time arguably we are one of the top leagues in the region and we feel we should probably have our champion earn in berth in the Champions League."
The league's ambitions, however, stretch beyond even a competition where Major League Soccer clubs have had limited success.
"Itís a global game," said Peterson. "We want to be able to compete with the best clubs in the world in the next 3-5 years. Itís a lofty goal, and I didn't say we'd beat them every time, but we want to be in a position where we can compete with everyone. That's the fun of this sport, that's the great part of the sport, that it is global. So we've got our sights set on getting to the Champions League and currently that has to be through the U.S. Open Cup, so that's the first step along the way. We need one of our clubs to win the Open Cup."
In the meantime, the league is very bullish on its new playoff setup, which will feature four teams, the winners of the spring and fall seasons as well as the teams with the two best overall records.
"This was something we had talked about in the past, of being part of the competition once we got to 16 or 18 clubs, because of the single format and the spring and fall seasons, we felt we needed to include more people in a short playoff. Basically the conversation was if we are going to do it t 16 or 18, why not establish it now," said Peterson.
There was some stirring in the league last year, over the Soccer Bowl contenders. The Atlanta Silverbacks won the spring season, but faltered in the fall, while the fall champions and eventual Soccer Bowl winners, the New York Cosmos, didnít play the spring season. Meanwhile the Carolina Railhawks had the best overall record and finished second in both halves.
"The consensus around the room is this is going to remain a four-team playoff for a number of reasons," said Peterson. "One, we want to maintain the importance of playing the spring and the fall seasons, so those are your number one and number two seeds. We recognized that there were clubs with a high degree of consistency and success, meaning they had the next best overall records over the two seasons so we agreed to allow the next two best overall records in. They'd be the third and the fourth seeds."
Peterson thinks the four-team playoff format is optimal.
"That adds something to our competition. If you start to add too many teams to the playoffs, I think it takes away from the importance of your regular season and that's the most important thing to us. We think we've struck the right balance, four teams in the semifinals and a final. It enhances the competition, it will keep more teams in play in the fall than just the spring and fall champion, but at the same time it doesnít take away from the importance of winning during the regular seasons."