The absurdity of summer league playoffs -- and a proposal to replace them

Every summer, college players in search of more games flock to teams in four leagues -- USL League Two (formerly the PDL) and the NPSL for men, the WPSL and United Women’s Soccer for women.

They race through 12-14 games (in extreme cases, eight or 18) packed into 10-12 weeks, perhaps with an Open Cup game or two mixed in.

Then by mid-July, or even earlier in some leagues, most of them are done.

The leagues wrap up so soon because they feel compelled to have national playoffs before their college players scurry back to campus for preseason training. Each league has 16 or more teams playing a three- or four-week postseason bracket after a season that lasts 2½ months, if that.

So the questions raised would be these:

1. What is the obsession with a “national” championship?

2. What’s the priority here -- that national championship or player development?

Without this playoff system, each team could save on travel costs and give players more games. The schedule-makers may also be able to avoid having teams play on back-to-back days or two games in a three-day weekend. The NPSL, WPSL, League Two and UWS can simply be umbrellas for regional summer leagues.

But suppose some teams still want to have a national tournament? We can still do that, and we can make it more meaningful.

Let’s call it the Summer Cup.

Any team that plays a summer schedule is eligible. Participation is optional, so if teams don’t want to devote resources to travel, they can still play a full regional league schedule.

Use the previous year’s standings to determine qualifiers -- maybe 28-32 each from the NPSL and League Two, with a few spaces for USASA and UPSL teams that play through the summer. The women’s Cup will have a more difficult time getting to 64, given the paucity of high-level amateur soccer and the small number of teams in United Women’s Soccer, so we’ll start with 32 teams and hope the new Cup entices more clubs to join in.

Play four midweek games over the course of the season, then reserve the last weekend before college players report back to campus for a championship weekend with semifinals on Thursday and the final on Sunday.

It’s a win-win for summer teams. Anyone who doesn’t advance to the championship weekend can continue league play into early August -- if the NCAA finally gives colleges a legitimate fall-spring schedule, maybe they won’t need to get to campus so quickly and can add another week or two. Teams get at least 14 weeks to spread out their schedule. Another game or two. More rest. More training.

The teams that make it through the Cup will play for a true national championship. The Cup winner won’t just be the champion of one league that may or may not have the best teams in the summer.

U.S. Open Cup participation may fall by the wayside. These teams have always been an odd fit in the tournament, anyway. They barely have time to train together before the first round proper in early May. Should they advance to the semifinals, they’d likely have to forfeit because their players would be dispersed. The only advantage is the chance of an entertaining matchup against a pro team.

So instead of pushing teams through multiple Cup competitions, let’s do this: Take the top teams in League One and NPSL play and have them play single-game regional cup competitions against the local pros. Maybe FC Baltimore vs. Loudoun United for the DMV Cup. Western Mass Pioneers vs. Hartford Athletic for the Southwest New England Cup. Ogden City SC vs. Real Monarchs for the Wasatch Cup.

Meanwhile, the Summer Cup gives them a trophy that’s within their reach. An ambitious team can even shoot for a treble. Win the regional WPSL, League One, UWS or NPSL league. Beat the local pro team for the regional cup. Then win the Summer Cup.

If this is difficult to visualize, take a look at a Summer Cup simulation online using a mix of league results and a random number generator.

A few of the fun matchups from that simulation:

The Des Moines Menace, a League Two team with a proud Open Cup history, defeated division rival Chicago FC United (unfortunate random draw) and FC Maritsa (a St. Louis USASA team) to set up a showdown with NPSL power Minneapolis City SC (NPSL).

After an unfortunate first-round draw placed New York Cosmos B and the Brooklyn Italians together, Brooklyn moved on to beat New York Red Bulls U-23 to meet League Two’s GPS Portland.

Miami FC alternated wins against League Two and NPSL sides before losing to eventual champion Cleveland SC.

That seems more fun than playing the same teams for the third time in a short summer. And it makes that summer last a little longer so players can get a little better.

3 comments about "The absurdity of summer league playoffs -- and a proposal to replace them".
  1. s fatschel, July 23, 2019 at 1:13 p.m.

    Since most kids going pro have already long been identified why not localize summer play for college players.  That would allow them to focus on internships, far more important for a rising sophomore and junior.

  2. David Saxe replied, July 23, 2019 at 1:52 p.m.

    s fatschel, that is unbelievably reasonable!  What do summer college baseball players do?  
    Something similar to your suggestion, they live and work in a small community and the travel is limited.  
    Often players from "away" live with volunteers in home stays while these young people contribute to the local communities where they are living.

  3. Glenn Manning, July 24, 2019 at 2:54 p.m.

    For the answer to your question #2 - see the above article about Tiffeny Milbrett.  It NEEDS to be about player development :)

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