Recently I had a bizarre experience. And it was nothing to do with Mardi Gras season being in full swing here in New Orleans.
This season I coached football at the all-girls’ school that my daughter attends. She is only four (pre-Kindergarden for us Yanks), but I look after the varsity or high school team, equivalent to grammar, secondary, or whatever we call them back home these days. Basically the team has players aged anything up to 18.
Louisiana is split into 10 regional divisions and the top two in each section automatically qualify for the playoffs. A further 12 schools with the best competitive record also go through to the knockout stage, making a nice round number of 32 teams.
So that’s straight forward, right? The same system is used in qualification tournaments for the World Cup and the Euros with group winners and the best seven runners-up or whatever qualifying. Fair enough. However, as I’m learning, nothing is ever easy with sports in America.
For starters, some of the divisions only had two schools. Seriously. So both automatically qualified. Other divisions, like ours for example here in The Big Easy, had six teams. We have not only the current State Champions, but also the school currently ranked Number One in Louisiana. So in one division both teams go through no matter what, while in ours we play four games (home and away) against the strongest opponents around. Much of this is dictated by geography, but still, Louisiana is not a huge state and it certainly is unbalanced to say the least.
Anyway, five out of the six teams in our league qualified for the playoffs – despite one of those schools losing every competitive game they played – and we went onto the next stage. I, along with the other coaches of teams still left in the competition, had to rank every team from 1 to 31 (you don’t rank yourself).
Can you spot the flaw? I was asked to rate 31 schools in order of talent even though I’d never seen about two dozen of them play, because, well, they are based hundreds of miles away! How are you supposed to do it? You go through their fixtures, find their scores against common opponents, and base your view as best you can on that. The 32 coaches’ forms are then amalgamated, the schools seeded from 1 to 32, and a playoff bracket produced with seed 1 v seed 32, seed 2 v seed 31, etc
So obviously the higher the seed you have the better, and it’s open to all sorts of what you may euphemistically call “political” interpretations: “You rank us this and we’ll rank you that,” and so forth. In the UK it would be labelled, “An old boys’ network,” and it’s especially important because the top 16 seeds get to play at home.
For instance a school we beat home and away in our division ended up 15th seed while we were 16th. How does that work? Apparently because even though we have the better head-to-head record, other coaches thought they performed better in friendlies against common opponents. Okay… Anyway, we were delighted to sneak in with a home tie, and we beat the 17th seed (from a little town hours away that I’d never even heard of) 2-1, before getting hammered in the next round by the number one seed.
This ranking system is not uncommon in sports over here – for instance, college American football is treated much the same, with sportscasters and journalists voting to choose the teams that get to contest the myriad Bowl finals – but it’s so far removed from anything we have back home, and completely at odds with that British sense of fair play.
Imagine if we did that for the FA Cup final. All the teams have, say, 20 fixtures, then “experts” vote on which teams they want to play each other in the showpiece event based on those scores. Stark raving bonkers, right? Yet it’s just accepted as the way to do things Stateside.
So the question is, if that’s how football worked at home, would Chelsea’s recent history be better or worse? Where would our club rank in the considered opinions of pundits, columnists and ex-professionals? Do people hate us and would they refuse to give credit where it’s due? Would we never have achieved the success we did under Mourinho because we didn’t play attractive enough football? Or would it actually benefit us at present, as according to some publications, fifth place on goals scored is akin to a disaster and reason to sack the manager?
Food for thought I suppose. Just a bit of fun. I’m almost finished ranking the Premier League clubs, but I’m having trouble deciding which order to put Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs, the teams in the relegation zone…
Stephen Rea is the author of the book Finn McCool’s Football Club, a tale of supporting Chelsea from the United States, the formation of a pub football team in New Orleans and the devastating effect of Hurricane Katrina on that city. Visit his site here: www.stephen-rea.com or friend him at www.facebook.com/stevorea
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