The A-League Post-Season Dilemma
By Ed Wyatt
How will the Australian A-League's controversial new finals system work and is a post-season even necessary?
As we head towards the A-League finals, it seems that fans and journalists are just now starting to figure out how the new system is going to work. And many don’t like what they see.
There’s been a recent spate of Tweets and comments from those not quite enamoured of the three-week knockout competition, which replaces a system that had a first up two-legged playoff between the #1 and #2 seeds, with the winner moving directly into the Grand Final and the loser getting a (very Australian) second chance.
The most common complaint about this year’s setup seems to be that the #5 and #6 seeded teams could end up contesting the Grand Final.
Never mind the romance of a team like Newcastle (currently sixth) catching fire and storming to a title, there are concerns over “rewarding mediocrity” and not giving the top two teams enough of an advantage.
In truth, the issue lies more with the number of teams in the finals rather than the system itself. In a ten-team league, to have six teams qualify for the finals is absurd.
No other league in the world allows 60% of its teams into the playoffs.
The NBA and NHL, both criticised for liberal post-season qualification, sit at 53% with 16 of 30 teams making the playoffs. MLS is probably closest to the A-League, with 10 of its 19 teams qualifying, yet that’s still just 53%.
The notion of a sixth-seeded team winning the championship might sound crazy to A-League fans, but in the NFL it’s the stuff dreams are made of. Three years ago, the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl as the sixth and final seed in the NFC, and it was lauded as a remarkable performance.
Of course, just 12 of 32 teams (38%) make the NFL playoffs, so a #6 seed is certainly more deserving than an A-League #6 seed.
Truth be told, Australian football is in a funny place when it comes to finals.
As most readers would know, the world’s biggest football leagues don’t even have playoffs or finals (other than for promotion/relegation purposes). Whoever wins the home-and-away season is declared the champion, end of story.
While that works for the Bundesliga, the Serie A, La Liga and the EPL, let’s not forget that those leagues also have cup competitions that provide the romance and drama of a knockout tournament and also bring more money into the coffers of clubs and the respective FA’s.
The A-League needs a money-spinner, and like the American MLS, feels the need to do the culturally appropriate thing and settle matters via post-season play, like every other major league in Australia.
And while the Grand Final remains the glittering prize all teams aspire to, the team that finishes on top of the table at the end of the regular season gets Australia’s only Asian Champions League berth.
This will be an interesting year and I applaud the FFA for trying something new. There is no doubt the pressure will be more intense and the stakes even higher.
Furthermore it’s all part of a new league finding its feet in a relatively young country. Like television broadcasts and fan engagement, football needs to borrow from other cultures, but establish what is best for the game here in Australia.
Six Pack From Down Under
1 Ricki Herbert became the fifth head coaching casualty of the season when he resigned from his position with Wellington Phoenix. That makes 5 of 10 A-League coaches who haven't seen out the season. Herbert, who is also head coach of New Zealand's national team, the All Whites, is well respected, but the Phoenix are having a terrible season, currently stuck in last place. Assistant Chris Greenacre has taken over on an interim basis but he lost his first game in charge, 2-1 to Newcastle in a midweek clash.
2 Ryan Griffiths is the latest A-Leaguer to make the jump overseas for bigger bucks, heading from the Newcastle Jets to Chinese club Beijing Baxi. It's far from ideal timing, with the Jets in the midst of a finals chase, but the A-League, with a $2.5 million per team salary cap is never going to be able to compete with its wealthier Asian brethren. Griffiths scored eight goals in 19 matches for Newcastle.
3 It's a rare thing when common sense prevails, particularly where the Asian Champions League is concerned, so we need to celebrate small victories. Coast FM, a regional radio station, has been covering Central Coast Mariners' games since 2005, but was priced out of the market – courtesy of a $10,000 fee charged by a Singapore company – for Wednesday's Asian Champions League match against Korea's Suwon Bluewings. But after complaints and lobbying from various Australian sources, including the FFA and the Football Media Journalists Association of Australia, Coast FM was allowed to call the match, which ended in a 0-0 draw.
4 Next week's Sydney Derby between the Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney FC is already a sellout, with more than 20,000 tickets sold for the match at Parramatta Stadium. A big crowd is also expected for this weekend's top-of-the table clash featuring the Mariners and the Wanderers, with Central Coast fans scrambling for tickets after Western Sydney fans snapped up an unprecedented number for a visiting team.
5 As I mentioned last week, "A Night With Alessandro Del Piero" drew a crowd of 600 people to Melbourne's Crown Casino. The event, benefitting a youth cancer charity, was a roaring success and according to fellow journalists, ADP was so generous with his time that the event ran long.
6 There has been plenty of talk about the quality and decision-making of A-League officials and linesmen this season, and last week was no different. In a match that ended 0-0, Brisbane's Jade North had a goal disallowed on a dubious offsides call. Look for the FFA to take measures to improve this area in the off-season.
Round 23 Fixtures
Adelaide United v Brisbane Roar
Perth Glory v Sydney FC
Central Coast Mariners v Western Sydney Wanderers
Wellington Phoenix v Melbourne Heart
Melbourne Victory v Newcastle Jets
I hope this league gains more respect in future seasons with bigger signings. They have more supporters each season, and great facilities.