Costa Rica’s Playoff System is the Best, Don’t @ Me

Playoffs are a terrible way to crown a champion. In Costa Rica, it’s an unnecessary evil.

But unlike MLS—a league more interested in rewarding mediocrity to cater to the casual sports fan, one that doesn’t give two shits about soccer—Costa Rica devised a playoff system that rewards excellence. 

Sorry Seattle, but we don’t gift trophies here. You actually have to give a shit for more than five weeks.

Make no mistake, the best and only way to crown a league champion is the single-table model. The argument that only playoffs allow a champion to be “crowned on the field” is a fundamentally useless one. Last I checked, the 38 games Manchester City played en route to a record 100-point season all took place on a field.

 If Liverpool breaks that record this season, I’m pretty sure those games took place on a field too.

It’s the culmination of a grueling 10-month journey. It’s one that should be celebrated, not ignored like it is in MLS.

Can you imagine if Liverpool finish with 103 points after 38 games, and then have to play Sheffield fucking United in the first round of a playoff?

So stupid.

All this sounds contradictory considering the same format exists in Costa Rica. After all, there is a 22-game season that sees all 12 clubs play home and away. It’s enough of a sample size to determine a true champion the way they do in Europe.

It’s just not that simple. 

This is where the playoff becomes an unnecessary evil.

To say the league in Costa Rica is top heavy is an understatement. The disparity between the rich and poor is far greater than its European counterparts. The three giants—Alajuelense, Herediano and Saprissa—have 91 combined titles. Not a single one of you can name the other nine clubs.

You couldn’t possibly know of Grecia, a club that had to forfeit games earlier this season because it had its license revoked from the Costa Rican federation. This isn’t exactly the type of shit that happens in Europe’s top flight.

Besides the obvious variables like ownership, prestige and endorsements, player movement plays a huge role in the financial disparity that runs rampant as well. The best a club like Carmelita can do is have one of its starlets move to a club like Herediano. It’s Herediano who in turn sells that player abroad for a much greater fee, as was the case with Brayan Rojas.

Imagine the investment Saprissa has been able to make selling the likes of Joel Campbell, Keylor Navas, Randall Leal, David Guzman and others. It’s not possible for the rest of the league to cope with that.

Understanding that the title is likely to be won by the rich, the competition is not decided by what you do against the poor. That part only allows you to be a part of the conversation.

The Cuadrangular is where you prove if you’re actually the best.

After all 22 games are played, only the top four advance to the playoffs. Sixty-seven percent of the league is eliminated. A standard semifinals bracket is constructed. All teams are seeded based on the single table, but the last team standing isn’t an automatic champion. That privilege only belongs to the team that finished with the most points in the regular season. 

If that team loses along the way, this is where Costa Rica separates itself from the conventional playoff system.

Your reward for 22 weeks of excellence is having a final say in who is crowned champion.

MLS is constantly restructuring its playoff system. It’s a sad attempt to find some way to “reward” the Supporters’ Shield champion. It’s just impossible to reward someone when you disregard the eight months that preceded the playoffs. Liga MX has an imperfect playoff system, but at least it rewards automatic promotion to the highest seed in the event of a tiebreaker.

In Costa Rica, if you finish the regular season with the most points, you automatically face the playoff winner in a Gran Final. That’s assuming you don’t win the damn thing yourself.

The 2018 winter title race between Saprissa and Herediano is the perfect example. 

The clubs met twice in the regular season, splitting the six points equally. Saprissa finished atop the table. Herediano qualified fourth, meaning the two would meet in the semifinals. 

After splitting yet another home and away, the series needed penalties to find a winner. Herediano won that shootout 4-2. Saprissa—despite being 10 points clear of Herediano and dominating the league for 22 weeks—was eliminated by a team that was clearly its equal.

In most leagues, Saprissa’s season would be over. Fortunately, it wasn’t.

As luck would have it, Herediano won the playoff, leading to another tie between the two. For the THIRD time, the two split the fixtures equally, forcing extra time. Thirty-two minutes into stoppage time, Aldo Magaña delivered the final blow.

Fuck, that one still hurts.

Herediano was crowned champions and deservedly so.

Saprissa had six opportunities to prove it was better than Herediano. It couldn’t. Despite being 10 points behind, the better team was crowned champion. 

Contrast that with the historic point totals in MLS. The New York Red Bulls and LAFC are admonished for not “proving it in the playoffs,” as if the eight-month resumes they put together weren’t proof enough. Less deserving teams—like Atlanta United, who choked the league title away on the last day of the regular season—are recognized instead.

What if LAFC had the second chance it rightly deserved in 2019? The Red Bulls faced Atlanta four times in 2018. They only lost once (3W-1L). Who was really the best team that year?

Playoff models like the one in MLS determine who’s better by WHEN you win, not how often you win. That can’t be said about the playoff system in Costa Rica. That’s what makes it the perfect blend of randomness and excellence. That’s what makes it the best playoff system you’ll find to crown a TRUE champion.

Anything else is a cheap thrill marred in mediocrity.

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