NASL Avoids Playoffs with Split-Season

A look at what an Apertura/Clausura format means to the NASL and North American soccer
by Daniel Casey   |   Thursday, September 06, 2012

North American Soccer League (NASL)

American sports fans need to have playoffs; they’ve become addicted to it. Tell someone that the season is over and the team with the best record is now the champion and they will blink dumbly as though you just spoke some language of clicks and whistles. Well, maybe not that bad but you get the idea. Playoffs have become ubiquitous and, honestly, this has been to the detriment of the leagues.

Because of the playoff obsession, teams no longer play to be the best team in their league but rather play for playoff positions. Perhaps the most successful team to employ this underwhelming strategy are the NFL’s New York Giants—a perennially middling team in the regular season, the Giants found a way to become Super Bowl champions without being the best team in the league…twice. The NBA insists on taking half of the teams from each of their conferences as part of their seemingly endless playoff slog and the NHL mimicking the NBA has sensibly extended the hockey season into summer for the sake of more playoffs. I can’t imagine anything more pointless than playoffs that admit half the league. Such an action dilutes the impact of having playoffs and a post-season in the first place. Extending the reach of the playoffs/postseason isn’t done because teams are so very good that they deserve it, it’s done because the league wants more revenue (i.e., greed). I loathe a team that barely manages to play over .500 and yet is allowed into the postseason. It’s a furiously stupid endeavor.

What irritates me about playoffs is that they too often become a series of do-overs—“C’mon, best of three” becomes “Alright, best of five” leads to “Okay, best of seven.” Playoffs are the only legitimate example of the slippery slope fallacy. One of the things I’ve always loved about proper football is that there is no playoff; if you win the league, you are champion—period. Last season in the EPL was a perfect example of how crushing and elating this can be. There are no excuses, you win or you lose, and the character of the team, of a player, and of you as a supporter is revealed. As much as the United States likes to pretend it’s a meritocracy, American sports are based on the idea that everyone should get a trophy no matter how well or how poorly they have played (this, incidentally, is the greatest hurdle to promotion/relegation). So it was a bold move by the NASL to announce this week that next season they would initiate an Apertura/Clausura format that is widely used in Latin American leagues.

Apertura/Clausura means Opening/Closing in Spanish, it is a format that splits a season into two parts. The NASL will have a spring (March/April to July) and fall (July/August to November) stage. The winner of the Spring Stage will face the winner of the Fall Stage to determine the champion of the league—the winners play each other for the Championship. This presents a remarkably elegant solution to the American need for a playoffs without creating a milquetoast postseason. It will also allow the league to avoid many of the international conflicts that come with having a season that runs counter to most of the rest of the soccer world.

There will be a month-long break between the two stages that will correspond to the international transfer window open in Europe, Latin America, and North America. During this break, every team will be able to make roster changes or schedule friendly matches. But, of course, there are still a good amount of questions to be asked of this new format. What if the team that won the Apertura wins the Clausura as well? How will the championship be decided? Easily answered, the team with the second-best record for the full year will be in the championship. What if a team has the best overall record but doesn’t win either the Apertura or Clausura? The answer is simple—if that happens, then that team doesn’t win the league and has to try harder next season. You don’t get participation ribbons as a professional.

As the name of the season format suggests, this scheduling is already in use in Central and South American and is working quite well. What this move does is bring the NASL in line with the professional leagues of the rest of the continent and with its transfer window break provides a neat fit with the European leagues. By switching to a season format more familiar to Central/South American players and clubs and by creating a break that coincides with the ‘silly season’ of most European leagues, the NASL has been significantly strengthened. How will this affect the top tier of American soccer, MLS? Probably not at all.

There is no reason that the NASL needs to force itself into the same box or paint itself into the same corner (whichever idiom you’d prefer) as MLS. In fact, with an Apertura/Clausura format, the NASL has now enriched the US soccer landscape without in any way taking anything from MLS (perceived or actual). No toes are being stepped on in this move; there is no unnecessary competition between the two leagues. What’s more, this in no way means that the two leagues can’t co-operate in the future. If anything, the NASL just became a better place to send talent that needs minutes and development. Players will be better able to serve a team, maintain their fitness, or improve their skills if they are loaned out with this format. But not just looking down from the MLS, players from the NPSL, PDL, and USL (Divisions 4 and 3) will be able to continue their play if they are in good from thanks to this move. Furthermore, teams that are looking to expand or to move up the ladder will find this format to be more manageable and, ultimately, more profitable simply because this opens more doors while providing significant marketable milestones.

The most important aspect of this format change is that it demonstrates that the second division of US soccer is solidifying, that it’s putting itself in a secure lasting position. As the NASL expands to reach its twenty team goal, moves like this one demonstrate the league’s practical, long-view policies. Next season will see the addition of the New York Cosmos to the league, the Ottawa Fury will join soon after once their impressive new stadium is complete, there is movement for a team in Northern Virginia, and the possibility that the San Diego Flash may opt in. More stable teams in more markets mean that all of American soccer is strengthened. Already the NASL is providing quality play to cities and regions ignored by MLS, and as lower division teams grow in clout and in success the real winners are the fans and the players.

Daniel CASEY

Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.