The Canadian Premier League (CPL) is considering a playoff format for the 2020 season according recent reports online.
“It’s been suggested to me that the top three teams should go into the playoffs,” said CPL commissioner David Clanachan, in a Q&A session with CanPL.ca last month. “Do we really need a spring and fall table, or are we better off going to a single table? There’s an argument to made that a three-team playoff system means there’s more teams fighting it out right until the end of the regular season.”
And OneSoccer analyst Kurt Larson recently said, via Twitter, he’s also heard CPL leadership is interested in a playoff system.
Have heard from a number of #CanPL leadership interested in some kind of playoff system. There’s a need to keep more clubs playing for something longer, especially in a league where the gap from top to bottom is so vast.
— Kurt Larson (@KurtLarsonCPL) January 8, 2020
Playoffs would be a change from the 2019 season which culminated with a two-club final contested between the league’s top two clubs. Some CPL fans aren’t pleased with the prospect of an expanded playoff format, preferring a traditional single-table European format.
But implementing a proper playoff format for the 2020 CPL season would be for the best.
Canadian Premier League’s final month of 2019 a damp squib
2019 saw Cavalry FC and Forge FC pull away from the rest of the pack early. Calgary’s Cavs secured a place in the Finals with a Spring Season victory in June. Hamilton’s Forge FC joined them in September, with a full month of the regular season left to play, before the CPL finals at the end of October.
In effect, there was nothing tangible for any club to target in the final month of the inaugural regular season leading up to the Finals. It was an anti-climax.
Having three or four playoff spots to play for, instead of just the two finals spots, would have kept things interesting ahead of the finals week.
Some football purists would prefer a single table format where the top team at the end of the season wins the title.
But this was always going to be a tough ask of a start-up league desperate to drum up interest.
Full disclosure: I passionately follow the English Premier League, doomed to support Tottenham Hotspur for eternity. And I would never want to alter that league’s format. A proper best-team-wins title race can be enthralling week to week. This season’s Serie A and Bundesliga are perfect examples.
But the Canadian Premier League is a different beast. It’s newer. It’s smaller. It’s weaker. And it doesn’t have the numerous continental places or relegation fights to supplement the title race.
European leagues, in part, work so well these days because they boast having the best players in the world, with the biggest clubs in the world and they have history. CPL possesses none of this.
Playoffs aren’t perfect but they work
Playoffs come with a couple trade-offs. The significance of the average mid-season match feels diminished. But this is perhaps balanced by the compactness of the CPL season. Each club plays only 28 matches in the regular season. 10 fewer than the English Premier League. And six fewer than Major League Soccer, a league that uses playoffs.
The fewer the matches, the more significant each one is to a race for the playoffs.
The major undeniable drawback for a playoff system is the league’s best team is not guaranteed the league crown. A club can dominate the regular season, but it gets nothing with failure in the playoffs.
But, the sooner fans and the league accept the CPL won’t be a competition always rewarding the league’s best team, the better.
Young league’s need to prioritize fun and entertainment, often targeting the numerous casual paying fans ahead of the fewer purists. Playoffs are a simple and efficient means of achieving this.
Broadcasters and sponsors will have their say
OneSoccer, the CPL’s online streaming partner, and CBC, who presented a selection of CPL matches on television and online last season, would have seen viewing numbers drop over October last year.
The league, its broadcast partners and its sponsors will be keen to avoid a blunted final month again. A playoff race will be seen as an easy solution.
And one more simple truth: for the average North American sports fan, playoffs are familiar. They work in this part of the world.
Some footy fans have suggested creating a separate CPL cup tournament to run alongside the CPL and Canadian Championship, the existing national soccer championship featuring clubs from the CPL and MLS. They argue this proposed CPL league cup would bolster fan interest to the end of each season.
This would complicates matters beyond what a start-up league, with less than 10 clubs, is capable of. And a league cup could end up watering down the main event.
No, the league will likely settle on some form of playoffs to determine the CPL championship. And the quicker they do it, the faster we can accept it and move on.
Canadian Premier League needs to choose a format and stick to it
Not only should the league resolve this issue soon, they should commit to its decision for the next few seasons.
The CPL can’t continue switching formats between seasons. Such instability could damage its brand, longevity and reputation.
The league format was always going to be adjusted in the early days of the competition. And most fans could forgive a few first-year bumps.
The CPL didn’t announce their 2019 finals format until late June 2019, less than a week before Cavalry FC secured a finals spot with its Spring Season victory.
In essence, Clanachan and Co. forced managers and players to play nearly 10 matches not knowing what they were truly playing for last year. The league would be advised to avoid this for the 2020 season – though we’re less than four months out from kickoff and there’s yet to be a formal format announcement.
Whatever decision the CPL makes for year-two should be maintained for the next half decade at least. New teams will join the league in that time, but the general format should be upheld, for better or worse.