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From The Court To The Pitch: Re-Envisioning European Soccer In College Basketball Terms

Rumors of a UEFA Super League have become increasingly prevalent in recent times as larger clubs look for ways to earn a buck any way they can. An official announcement of a Super League even came earlier this year before being trounced by fans across the continent.

Big clubs loathe the current Champions League format because it limits matchups against other big clubs and forces them to share the prize money, while smaller clubs believe the format is slanted against them.

What if there was a way to make everybody happy, where lesser clubs have a better way to prove themselves, while the big boys have more chances to face each other?

Well, there is. We just have to look at sports in the United States. No, not professional sports, college basketball.

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Here's how it would work:

  • August to October: Non-Conference Play ≈ 10-15 matches

Clubs can schedule anyone they want from outside their own league in an effort to strengthen their resume.

  • November to March: League Play ≈ 20-25 matches

Clubs play their normal league schedule, as decided by their country's football association.

  • April and May: Champions League — 64-team single-elimination tournament

The best clubs in Europe play in a truncated format of the UCL to determine the best team in Europe, with teams chosen through their body of work that year, as selected by a non-biased committee.

Now let's go over that in more detail.

Non-Conference Play

The leading complaint from big clubs in Europe is that they don't play each other enough. Well, now they have 10 weeks to play whoever they want. Manchester United could pad its win total against Fleetwood Town and Forest Green Rovers, or it could schedule challenging away fixtures versus Juventus and Real Madrid.

Both choices will weigh heavily come Champions League selection time.

This also provides mid-table sides a chance to prove themselves against foreign competition. Sure, Leeds United doesn't have great odds of earning a Champions League spot in the current format. But if they have a couple of wins against, say, Valencia and Lyon, then they become a team to consider for an at-large bid — even if they finish outside of the top four in the EPL.

The non-conference period is also a chance for clubs from smaller countries to schedule teams from larger leagues, much like mid-majors playing against power conference schools in college basketball. On paper, these games offer easy wins for the bigger teams, but the smaller sides have a lot to prove as underdogs, as they hope to pick up a big resume-building win.

Fans would love to see Celtic play a three-game tour in England or watch Ajax tussle against the best sides in LaLiga. Every one of those games would be meaningful for Champions League selection and the revenue would go directly to the clubs.

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Another perk would be neutral-site games, a practice that has become popular in college basketball. Liverpool vs. AC Milan in Munich, anybody? 

A club's win-loss record will be less important during this period; instead, the focus will be on the quality of their results.

League Play

The domestic schedule will still be important but will not factor as much for Champions League selection. No longer will the top four in the Premier League automatically earn a Champions League spot. Instead, only the league winner will be guaranteed a UCL berth; for the remaining teams in the continent, the selection committee will look at the overall quality of a club's resume to determine the best at-large candidates. 

An away win at Manchester City and a home win against Burnley might be worth the same number of points, but the former will be much more valuable in the eyes of the selection committee. The league campaign will be as much about earning good wins and avoiding bad losses as it is achieving a high finish.

In smaller leagues (i.e. the Polish Ekstraklasa), only the winner will advance to the end-of-season European bash. Other top-tier leagues like LaLiga or Serie A might send upwards of five or six clubs. This number is fluid too, so there is no guaranteed number of berths for each league every year.

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As in college basketball, leagues will be allowed to set schedules how they see fit. Smaller leagues like the Scottish Premiership could play a double round-robin, while the English Premier League might be content with every club facing each other once. Ideally, the league campaign will be 20-25 matches long, with one game played every week.

This means no more congested periods where clubs play upwards of 10-15 matches a month. November through March will be set aside exclusively for domestic leagues.

Leagues will also have the choice of using (to borrow from basketball terms) a conference tournament to decide the league winner. This would likely be a simple single-elimination format seeded by league performance, with the top teams receiving multiple byes into the quarterfinals or semifinals of the tourney. The tournament could also be restricted to teams that finish above a certain position in the league. This all adds a bit of excitement while giving the other teams in the league more to play for, especially in one-bid leagues.

Champions League

I've always found it a bit strange that a club's performance domestically determines whether they can play in European competition the following year. In college basketball, a team's showing that year is the only factor for determining whether they earn a spot for the end-of-season March Madness tournament. 

Plus, there is no maximum number of bids for each conference, meaning that March Madness always features the top teams in college basketball.

In soccer, the English Premier League is capped at seven European spots — with four guaranteed in the Champions League. Yet all seven English teams that qualified for Europe this year are currently in line to qualify for the knockout stages of their respective tournaments — with four UCL group leaders being from the EPL. 

The association rankings used to determine the number of UCL spots for each country are determined by the performances of clubs from that country from 2-6 years prior. That does not reflect the strength of the league in the current season. 

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In terms of the number of clubs, 55 UEFA member countries does provide a bit of a challenge. Yet that can be remedied by a play-in tournament with automatic qualifiers (league winners) from the 28 weakest nations.

Play two single-elimination rounds to whittle down to seven clubs — much like the preliminary qualifying process already in place — add in 30 at-large clubs, seed the teams, and you get a six-round, 64-team tournament.

Have single-elimination games contested at pre-set neutral sites across the continent — again, one match a week — with the semifinals and final both played at the same location. 

With single elimination, upsets will be plentiful. But unlike in the current UCL format, fans of big clubs won't be worried about getting a high-profile matchup because they already played a hearty non-conference slate. 

Now for the biggest challenge: determining the at-large clubs. This is where the use of advanced statistics comes into play in college basketball.

Websites like KenPom and Bart Torvik offer offensive, defensive and efficiency stats adjusted to the opponents a team faces as well as a plethora of useful data. The NCAA also has its own rating system, the NET Rankings, which encapsulates: "game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency and the quality of wins and losses."

This allows for the objective comparison of teams from different conferences. 

College basketball also has a useful tool for determining the difficulty of a particular game. Known as the quadrant system, each game is assigned to one of four categories based on the NET Ranking of the opponent and the location of the game — with the first quadrant as the hardest and the fourth quadrant as the easiest. 

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Transfer that over to soccer, and a home match against Manchester United might be judged to be as difficult as an away trip to Leeds United. 

With so many high-level stats currently floating about the game, it would be easy to create a comprehensive rating system that can be scrutinized in tandem with a club's resume when it comes to determining their Champions League selection status. 

Other Odds & Ends

What about lower league clubs?

Teams not in the first division in their country's footballing pyramid will still participate in non-conference games during the first quarter of the campaign and will play their normal league slate from November to March, but things will be a little different come spring.

While the Champions League is being contested, every country will host its domestic cup, with every non-Champions League side eligible for the cup. Seeding will loosely be based on non-conference and league performance — much like the way Champions League clubs will be selected. They will also be free to organize cups during the non-conference period.

How about promotion and relegation?

No changes here, except that clubs have fewer league games to decide their fate (non-conference play won't be a factor).

What's the deal with this mysterious committee? 

As with college basketball, the committee determines the seed of every team in the end-of-season tournament and selects the at-large teams it believes deserve to participate. The committee will be non-biased, of course.

No more domestic double round-robins?

With so many leagues looking to lengthen their schedules, it's about time we moved in the opposite direction. Liverpool played a whopping 53 matches last season — and that's without advancing past the quarterfinals in any of its cup competitions. Most college basketball teams play 15-20 conference games, so soccer leagues could adjust to get 20-25, making sure to rotate opponents every season.

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Won't the big clubs just face each other in non-conference play and ignore everyone else?

This has been a recent topic of conversation in college basketball, as talented mid-major teams look to prove themselves against power conference sides but are unable to find a willing opponent. 

One way to remedy this is to have mini-tournaments and short foreign tours during non-conference play. Chelsea could go to Belgium to face Jupiler Pro League sides as a way of spreading its brand and getting in some tough away matches, while maybe Inter Milan hosts a tournament with PSV, Basel and Barcelona.

I think this issue will be less of a problem in Europe because a team like Manchester United can travel anywhere on the continent knowing it will attract a crowd. Plus, Man United will want to host some lesser foreign teams as warmup matches earlier in the season.

What happens to the Europa League and Europa Conference League?

They're done, no one liked them anyway.

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