Playoffs!!! Finally They Matter…

Playoffs!!! Finally They Matter…

Ok, so let me start by saying, I love the CPL. And I love the amount of energy they are putting into trying to make the league exciting and fun for everyone.


I am not of fan of their insistence on pushing a couple things that I feel are way less important than they’d have us believe.

Those two things are u-21 minutes and the playoff format. I will fill y’all in on u-19 minutes in my next article. I’ll just focus on the playoffs here.


What’s the Big Deal?

Our league is awesome. But it is missing some things. Promotion and Relegation (pro/rel) is the big one from a world soccer perspective, but with the work going on in L1O that may be on the horizon someday.

And dedicated media coverage outside official partners OneSoccer and the league is another.

Why do I bring these two things up? Because in the case of the former, without pro/rel you have to find artificial ways to maintain interest in struggling markets. That’s because there is no race to stay up. The Big 4 North American sports have the gawd-awful Draft and Draft Lottery. Kudos to CPL for staying out of that mess… mostly.


And in the case of the latter, basically all the news on the league and what it’s doing comes through official channels with a vested interest in the promotion of the league and its plans. That’s not all their fault, (where are you corporate media giants?), but it is a truth nonetheless.

I know, I know, who cares? It’s just sports. But I care. And so do thousands of CPL and Canadian Soccer fans across the country. And sometimes we want our league to be looked at from all angles, not just the view from head office, despite the pretty good job they are doing.

Don’t believe that the league’s media is not quite far enough apart to be considered arm’s length? Look up articles on the CanPL site or OneSoccer about the following: PFACan union negotiations; the CSB/CSA marketing renegotiations; Expansion in the CPL. (Helloooo Saskatchewan and Windsor. How did Vancouver FC get here first?)

Digital rendering of the proposed Saskatoon soccer stadium, Saskatoon has been touted as an expansion CPL city for years now

You are unlikely to come back with many in-depth articles. And ones that you do find will have less than fulsome discussions of the big picture.

That’s by design and a necessity. The league is in full promotion mode. That’s what it has to be. It has a product to sell, and I get how capitalism works. OneSoccer may be in an even less desirable spot. They shelled out for this product and have to sell it to the public. They must be feeling like they have to pump out great (and positive) narratives to save their investment. I’d argue that the world loves controversies, so it would be good to give the rest the Canadian Soccer public a peek behind the curtain.

Anyway, this is all fair. After all, if I want to know what is really going down regarding a difficult situation in MLS, I don’t go to their app, I check out the Athletic’s deep dive, right?

Fair. And CPL isn’t there yet. They have me, not Joshua Kloke….sorry.


Back to Basics

So that’s the context, but let’s get back to my main focus here. The playoffs.

The honest to goodness take on this is pretty straightforward. We have 8 teams. If only 4 make the playoffs, then potentially half the league could have nothing to play for before we even hit Labour Day. And of course that would hurt the bottom line and those clubs. And since this is a North American sports league there is likely a degree of profit sharing, so one franchise losing ticket money doesn’t help. Let alone four.

If we were fortunate enough to have pro/rel then games in the struggling markets would still have meaning down the stretch. In our North American sports cousin’s world, tanking down the stretch hurts the chequebook, but there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That number 1 draft pick.

So there it is in black and white. Pretty basic and underwhelming. The CPL needs the new playoffs to generate revenue, especially in places where the product is not up to snuff on the pitch. (VFCs, this means you).

Valour are the only one of the original (remaining) six CPL teams to not qualify for the playoffs (Sam Calvert / Valour FC / CPL)

But the ongoing insistence that finally every game has meaning is a bit heavy-handed.

“Prove it!” , the crowd shouts at me.

Ok, how about this. If the old format existed, according to backers of Playoffs 5.0, games wouldn’t matter as much.


As of the writing of this article 6 points separates first through sixth in the CPL. In the old system, with only four spots assured of playoff action, that would mean every game matters, wouldn’t it? (Don’t bother, it’s rhetorical).

But wait, say the backers of the fifth playoff model in five years. This creates more opportunities for teams to get home playoff games. But that isn’t exactly true. In last year’s playoffs, four different teams hosted a playoff game. (PFC, Atleti, Forge and Cavalry).


In the “New Coke” of playoff formats, there will be four different teams hosting playoff games. I was an English major, so help me with the math. Isn’t that the same number of teams hosting?

Now I know, this is different though because it matters where you finish. Because there was no advantage last year in positioning because everyone got a home playoff game, right? It didn’t matter where you finished and you could mail it in according to some.

Except the facts don’t bear that out. Both Forge and Atleti advanced as the higher-seeded clubs to last year’s final. That may be because there is an advantage in playing at home in the second game of a series with knowledge of exactly what you need to do to advance. And, as a higher seed, it is much more likely that a bad game, or unlucky break, would knock you out in single game knock out. But the cream tends to rise to the top when it has to happen twice.

This is why single-game elimination tournaments tend to have more upsets than two-game ties do.

And let’s face it, a single game playoff at home is not necessarily an advantage. Ask Atletico Ottawa where they’d rather play Forge. In the Hammer, where the defending champs are pedestrian this season? Or in Ottawa, where Forge have an unblemished record in their history which includes a fantastic night capped off in champagne and confetti?

Hojabrpour celebrates giving Forge the lead in the 2022 CPL Final against Ottawa, the team with hime advantage has never won the CPL final (Audrey Magny/Canadian Premier League)

What’s the Down Side?

Are there any other negatives about the new celebrated system? Maybe.

  • How about it rewards mediocrity by giving a 5th place team a shot at glory for what will probably amount to a losing record.
  • It also creates the 5th different playoff system in 5 years. Not exactly a recipe for creating consistency for fan engagement.
  • It still won’t get Valour into a playoff position after five years of trying. (I know, this isn’t confirmed yet. But isn’t it?)
  • It ignores the race to be in the top four. Right now six teams would fighting for four spots. That is a pretty great race. One that creates all kinds of heartbreak. And that is what adds value to your success – being able to laugh at two of your rivals, not just one, right?

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Isn’t Anything About it Good?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some really cool things about the Playoffs Revisited. Like the league champion getting two kicks at the can as a reward. But of course that benefit is also offered to the second place team for some reason. In fact, now that I think about it, it could result in second place getting a home finals over the league champions. Man, if I have to listen to a full year of traditionalists yammering on about the importance of the league just to end up seeing that, I’ll be, well not mad or anything, but like confused maybe? Or sleepy and a bit peckish? Something.

Another cool-ish thing is single game knockouts. There is no doubting that a single-game elimination ramps up the edge-of-your-seatedness of the whole thing. Just think of March Madness in College Basketball, or the FA Cup for example. I think this was a cool idea. This does make every individual game matter…but only in the playoffs.


Don’t Games Always Matter

Look, there is a lot of talk around making games matter. But every game has always mattered. Now, I see the CPL through a Forge-tinted lenses I have to admit, but here the game is the thing. Because the CPL used to be based on the North American Pro Sports model, Bobby was always using every game to tinker with his system. Playing players out of position to increase team flexibility and coverage due to potential injury or suspension. Trying new formations to match up with certain opponents. Getting in good rotation to keep players rested and healthy. But the end result was always the same. He had his team peaking at the end of the season. And even the one year he didn’t pull it off, it was the narrowest of margins.

Ask Wanderers fans if every game matters as they slowly began to drift away from the excessive positivity of the East Coast with each successive tepid loss or uninspired draw. Those games mattered. As do the new mindset and belief inspired by their new gaffer and new players. They made the difference, not the model.

Every game in a new league is a chance to win over new fans, converts to the Church of Footy. If that hasn’t always been the mindset, then there’s your issue. And that is not something a superfluous change to the format of the playoffs will address fully.

And if every game finally matters now, in season five, why didn’t anyone tell Valour?! That seems cruel.

I get the nature of sport is winning at all costs, but for a league that is constantly trying to sell the “development league” moniker*, it seems awfully strange to be leaning so hard into the win-at-all-costs-every-game thing. I’d argue sacrificing experimentation, new mid-season techniques and philosophy tweaks for a higher slot in the playoff tournament is a poor trade-off development-wise. Of course I am not one who believes in CPL as a development league, so I guess I’ll learn to love it. (Tier-One soccer baby!).


So What Does It All Mean?

Look, in the end I am all for the CPL doing what they need to do to make this league viable over the long-run.

I just get a little bit peeved when I feel I am being condescended to as a Canadian Soccer fan.

The race to the playoffs is going to be fun. The playoffs are going to be a rollercoaster in all the best ways.

But the playoffs last year were great, (that crowd in Ottawa, the celebrations afterwards) and so was the run in for teams with a shot down the stretch. (It’s not our fault some blowhard on OneSoccer called the tie over in game one of the PFC v ATO battle, because you know the nature of sports, comebacks are impossible).

So much of the success/failure of a playoff system is down to happenstance and luck. If four teams had run away with it this year and four really sub par teams were battling it out for fifth, this system could have been mocked.

Or if one team powered away and won the league by 12 points then lost in the weird 1v 2 game on an own-goal and missed the reward of a home final for their fans, many would have rolled their eyes.

Or what happens if some of the one-and-done games are absolute blow outs? (It is possible that a knock-out game isn’t an exciting one – ask York about the 2021 semi-finals in Hamilton).

Nothing is guaranteed by the system. It comes down to the teams – the players and their coaches.

A four-team playoff race would have been fun and absolutely gut-wrenching this year. This Five-team free-for-all is a blast too.

But let’s call it like it is. The new system isn’t revolutionizing the importance of every game. It is a really fun experiment in keeping everyone engaged a little longer, and that’s ok. But if you are only watching your local team five years into the Canada’s first real tier one pro soccer league, we may be losing the battle already.

*More on that awful phrase in the U-21 article, blecch!!

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