So the prospect of hosting La Liga games in the USA and Canada is … kind of unlikely?
Let’s look at other options. I’ve long suggested cup competitions could be held here — maybe the FA Cup or Copa del Rey quarterfinals.
How about the Champions League? Or something even bigger?
Coincidentally, the idea of a European Super League that plays on weekends is one of those back-burner items that some (like Arsene Wenger) consider inevitable. And that could open all sorts of options.
Let’s consider the market forces pushing us here:
- Supporters, clubs, sponsors and TV networks preferring more Barcelona-Juventus games to more Barcelona-Levante.
- At the same time, European soccer needs multiple tiers for these supporters, clubs, sponsors, TV networks, etc.
- Included in that: The domestic leagues have proud traditions.
- Also, such a league needs a “footprint” — it can’t just be Madrid and Manchester teams playing every week.
Now let’s consider the competitive angles:
- If we’re going to have the best playing the best every weekend, we need to find a way for players to get some rest. We can’t just say “OK, Premier League game every Wednesday, Super League game every Saturday, off you go …”
- We simply can’t have a closed league here. I’ve run the numbers every which way, as you’ll see below, and it makes no sense. You simply can’t pick 24, 32, even 48 clubs that deserve permanent top-tier status while everyone else is shut out. Sure, you can pick a few obvious clubs — Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Juventus — but then it gets complicated.*
- While we want this to be the best of the best, we also want a pathway for other clubs. Maybe Ajax builds up to be a Euro power again. Maybe the carrot of European league play draws big money and big talent to a club in a country that doesn’t have a big-time league. Looking your way, Dublin.
- Europe’s domestic leagues have too much tradition to pull clubs all the way out of them. What would it mean to be a La Liga “champion” if Real Madrid, Barcelona and a couple more clubs aren’t playing?
In short — what we’re trying to do here is balance the desire for “best of the best” competition with the desire to spread around the wealth and the opportunity. It’s a compromise between a closed Super League and the current system, which still puts the biggest games on weekdays, forces clubs to deal with fixture congestion and has a group stage that could be a little more interesting.
(* – I’m intrigued with the EuroLeague basketball model, in which 11 teams have permanent licenses to be in the league. If you think that model would be a difficult sell to European sports clubs used to a different way of doing business, just look at the list of permanent EuroLeague teams — Real Madrid, Barcelona, Olympiacos, CSKA Moscow, Fenerbahce, etc. But I’m not sure it’s necessary.)
So with all that in mind, here’s what I’m figuring:
- A 48-team Super League split into six groups of eight. That’s 14 games per team per group. Below that, a 96-team second-tier Champions League we’ll discuss later. (We’ll call it the Champions League because it will have all domestic champions who aren’t in the Super League — we really want to give everyone a shot.)
- Top two Super League teams in each group advance to 12-team playoffs. The four group winners with the best records get a bye to the quarterfinals. The other eight teams have their first playoff games in December … in neutral sites around the world. (Yes, this is where the games in the USA come in.) You could do a two-leg series with one game at a neutral site and the second at the higher seed’s home ground, which would reduce the likelihood of a fluke results. At the other end, the bottom two from each group are relegated.
- The quarterfinal games take place in February or March. (You could have more games at neutral sites here, perhaps in venues that are too cold in December.) Then it all wraps up with a Final Four in the last games of the European club calendar.
- The reason for the lighter schedule in the spring is so teams can rejoin their domestic leagues. The fall season will be for the rest of the teams in the domestic top tiers to play their way into the spring season — which should make the middle of the table a bit more interesting than it currently is. (No, I haven’t worked out how to apply this to the handful of leagues that play a spring-to-fall schedule. When the Gulf Stream reverses or stops, all of Europe will be playing spring-to-fall, anyway.)
- Domestic champions from the top six European leagues make the Champions League the next year. So do the top six teams from the Europa League. (We’ll get to that.)
So who’s in this league to start? Here’s the fun part …
We have two good objective measures from UEFA: the 5-year and 10-year coefficients. (Funny that the latter has “revenue” in the URL.) We also have the FiveThirtyEight rankings, giving us a snapshot of who’s hot right now. (These don’t cover every league, so you’ll see that I do some contortions to account for Shakhtar Donetsk, Dynamo Kyiv, Viktoria Plzeň, Dinamo Zagreb, Vidi, APOEL, Maribor, etc.)
Then I went though results of every Champions League of this millennium — the 2000-01 season neatly avoids the pedantic issue of whether you consider the “millennium” to start in 2000 or in 2001 — and I counted the number of times each team made the group stage. (I also separately counted appearances in the playoff round, which began in 2009-10, but I wound up not using that for anything substantial.)
Here’s a ranking of how often each team reached the group stage. The 2018-19 Champions League is included, with many of these clubs already in the group stage. Some of these clubs are still playing in the qualifying round and therefore could add one; they’re listed below in italics.
- All 19: Real Madrid
- 18: Barcelona, Bayern Munich
- 17: Arsenal, Manchester United
- 16: Porto
- 15: Juventus, Lyon, Olympiacos
- 14: Chelsea
- 13: Shakhtar Donetsk
- 12: Dynamo Kyiv, Milan
- 11: Benfica, CSKA Moscow, Inter, Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven, Roma
- 10: Anderlecht, Celtic, Galatasaray, Valencia
- 9: Ajax, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, PSG
So to populate these leagues, I’m going to go by this priority:
- The top 20 in the 5-year coefficient.
- Any of the top 20 in the 10-year coefficient who have not yet qualified.
- Any of the top 20 in the FiveThirtyEight rankings who have not yet qualified.
- Any club that has been in the group stage nine times in this millennium. (Don’t worry — we’ll ditch this criterion moving forward. This is just for the initial field.)
- Go back through in that order: top 30s in 5-year, 10-year, 538. (BUT … we’re going to limit each country to eight teams. Apologies to Getafe and Eibar. Also, no second-division teams qualify.)
- I was left with two spots, so I added up the ranks of everyone who had a ranking in all four criteria and took the lowest overall numbers.
You can see the entire 48-team league and the numbers explaining their qualification here. I also did a random draw, splitting the teams into eight pots of six teams and using a random-number generator to come up with the groups. (Limit two teams per country per group.)
Here’s the 2018-19 Super League draw:
Group 1: Real Madrid, Porto, Basel, Schalke, Roma, PSV Eindhoven, Fiorentina, Villarreal
Group 2: Atlético Madrid, Manchester United, Benfica, Tottenham Hotspur, Lazio, Galatasaray, Marseille, Athletic Bilbao
Group 3: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Shakhtar Donetsk, AC Milan, Olympiacos, CSKA Moscow, Monaco, Club Brugge
Group 4: Barcelona, PSG, Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen, Inter Milan, Celtic, Red Bull Salzburg, Sporting Lisbon
Group 5: Juventus, Manchester City, Napoli, Lyon, Real Sociedad, Anderlecht, Ajax, Fenerbahçe
Group 6: Sevilla, Arsenal, Zenit, Liverpool, Valencia, Dynamo Kyiv, Beşiktaş, Viktoria Plzeň
Wondering about the country breakdown?
- 8: Spain
- 7: Italy
- 6: England
- 4: France, Germany
- 3: Portugal, Turkey
- 2: Belgium, Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine
- 1: Austria, Czech Republic, Greece, Scotland, Switzerland
It’s a terrific group of teams.
And here’s the matchday schedule:
- Aug. 11-12: Matchday 1
- Aug. 18-19: Matchday 2
- Aug. 25-26: Matchday 3
- Sept. 1-2: Matchday 4
- Sept. 3-11: International window
- Sept. 15-16: Matchday 5
- Sept. 22-23: Matchday 6
- Sept. 29-30: Matchday 7
- Oct. 6-7: Matchday 8
- Oct. 8-16: International window
- Oct. 20-21: Matchday 9
- Oct. 27-28: Matchday 10
- Nov. 3-4: Matchday 11
- Nov. 10-11: Matchday 12
- Nov. 12-20: International window
- Nov. 24-25: Matchday 13
- Dec. 1-2: Matchday 14
- Dec. 8-9: Round of 16 games played at international sites
- Dec. 15-16: Round of 16 games played at higher seeds’ home grounds
- Dec. 26: English clubs rejoin EPL for Boxing Day fixtures
- Late December-January: Other clubs rejoin their domestic leagues
- March 9-10: Quarterfinal games played at international sites
- March 16-17: Quarterfinal games played at higher seeds’ home grounds
- March 18-26: International window
- May 28: Super League semifinals, doubleheader at neutral site
- June 1: Super League final at same neutral site
- June 3-11: International window
- June 14: Start of Copa America
So here’s how the domestic leagues fit in: From Jan. 12 to May 25, we have 20 weeks (not counting the international window). Each country can easily fit in 18 league matchdays plus domestic cup competitions.
How the leagues accommodate re-entry from the teams that were busy with the Super League and Champions League is up to them. Most likely, they’d use the fall season to play for spots in the top tier in the spring season.
THE NEW CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
So what of the Champions League, formerly the Europa League?
First, we’re going divide Europe into six regions, as follows (no, they’re not particularly well-balanced competitively, but we’ll roll with it for the sake of letting the occasional team from elsewhere have a pathway to the Super League — the big leagues have plenty of opportunities to get there):
Channel/Scandinavia (9): England, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland
Iberia/Benelux (8): Andorra, Belgium, France (Monaco), Gibraltar, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain
Central (9): Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland (Liechtenstein)
Adriatic/Mediterranean (9): Albania, Bosnia, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Malta, San Marino, Turkey
Balkans/Black Sea (9): Armenia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine
Eastern (8): Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Russia
Nearly every country will have at least one team in the competition, as such:
- Any domestic champion that isn’t in the Super League.
- Any runner-up of a league whose champion is in the Super League.
- If the runner-up is also in the Super League, no team from that country automatically qualifies on this criterion — chances are pretty good that country will have another representative in the Champions League, anyway. If not, well, it already has two in the Super League.
And no country will have more than three. Again, this is the pathway for the rest of Europe. The Big Five or Six or whatever already have tons of teams in the Super League.
So once we have all qualified champions and runners-up, and we’ve divided into regions, we’ll fill in the rest from the 5-year coefficient and general history. (OK, I admit — I reached a point at which I was just looking at the numbers and picking the ones that looked best. I’ve spent days on this.).
One fun possibility for the Champions League: Playoffs among non-champion teams, held in May. Held around the world. More games in the USA!
So we see plenty of possibilities for the USA to host meaningful games here. What are the advantages for European clubs?
- In bigger leagues, teams that aren’t involved in European play will spend the fall trying to earn a place in the final 10. So all those clubs that spend each year fighting for a “mid-table” finish? Now “mid-table” could mean making the final 10.
- The Champions League will offer a lot of good local matchups. Scottish teams vs. English teams. Belgian teams vs. Dutch teams. Intra-Scandivanian games.
- More rest.
- A separation of seasons, simplifying things for supporters.
- We have a Super League that isn’t closed to Belgium, the Netherlands, most of Eastern Europe, etc.
There are a lot of moving parts here. I’ve spent about 15 hours on this post, and yet I’m sure readers will have suggested tweaks. Have at it.