Playoffs Around the World: Global leagues use variety of different formats to determine champions

Juninho, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane - LA Galaxy - MLS Cup 2014

European soccer players, coaches and fans are often a little baffled by the concept of playoffs when they first discover Major League Soccer. For some, the league champion is simply the team with the most points at the end of the regular season.

But in a sport so often referred to as “The World’s Game” the European perspective is hardly the only one, and MLS has plenty of company around the world (and in Europe) in preferring playoffs to a single-table approach to crown a champion.

In looking at 126 leagues throughout the world’s six confederations (some of the less consistently formatted and less competitive leagues were not considered), there are plenty – more than 28 percent, in fact – who opt to crown their league champion through some sort of postseason, and they use a wide variety of extracurricular schemes to do it.

As a straight knockout competition, however, MLS may be an outlier. Most MLS “peers” in that regard come from CONCACAF: Mexico, all seven Central American countries, Jamaica and Guyana all crown champions via a knockout system (although Jamaica only switched recently, and Belize often throws in an additional group stage for good measure).

Outside of CONCACAF, only Afghanistan, Australia (single-game playoffs), Colombia, Comoros, the fledgling India Super League, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, San Marino (which is double-elimination until the final) and Sri Lanka use knockout tournaments. The number of teams that qualify for these postseason tournaments tends to vary between 25 percent and 60 percent, with MLS joined by Honduras and Australia at the latter number.

Since most of Latin America uses split seasons – two championships per calendar year – four of South America’s 10 leagues (Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela) crown a single champion per season by having the champions of each regular season face off, usually in a two-leg series. Peru offers a different twist. The season-ending two-leg series is based only on results, NOT total goals; the higher seed gets to choose who hosts the first leg; and if the teams are tied (1-1 or 0-0-2) after the first two legs, a decisive third leg is played at a neutral site.

Some countries need to split their regular season into multiple groups for geographic and/or political purposes, such as Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Nigeria in Africa and Iraq, Syria and Sri Lanka in Asia. These postseasons often include a group-stage playoff in which the 4-8 qualified teams start from scratch and play a single or double round-robin to determine the champion, although Iraq and Syria have also used knockout finals.

The other common way to crown a champion, aside from single-table or knockout playoffs, is “splitting the table,” where the final set of games are contested in an upper group competing for the championship and a lower group fighting to avoid relegation, with the split usually occurring exactly halfway through the standings. Teams carry over all or some of their points from the regular season, with the final games giving contending teams a chance to close the gap on the leaders.

This is the only playoff system used in Europe, where 12 leagues use decisive group stages as their preferred tiebreaker. Cyprus, Israel, Belarus, Scotland, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Northern Ireland, Wales and Andorra all allow qualifying teams to carry all their points into the final group stage, while Belgium, Poland and Kazakhstan only allow teams to carry over half of their points, thus reducing the gap that must be closed. Poland, Scotland, Macedonia and Northern Ireland are the only European countries to use a single round-robin rather than a double-round robin for this extra phase.

Malta (just to be different and make Simon Borg proud), reduces all teams’ points by one-half after the first 22 games of the season, leaving the final 11 contests as the most weighty.

Wherever you are in the world, there are probably playoffs not too far away. How those playoffs proceed, however, is anything but uniform. In Major League Soccer, fans have come to expect the MLS Cup Playoffs to produce the highest drama and the most indelible memories, and there are surely many more to come.