With all the criticism of the A-League’s Top 6 playoff format rewarding mediocrity, I thought a closer inspection was warranted.
The first point to clear up is the notion that the league phase of the competition only exists to provide the 6 teams for the playoff series. Not true – the league exists to determine the one team that will be crowned Premiers for finishing the league in first position. Despite the repeated use of the term “minor premiers” in the Australian press, there is nothing “minor” about it – unlike most other Australian sporting competitions, coming first in the A-League is a big deal, carrying with it the title of Premiers along with entry into the Asian Champions League.
The other prize up for grabs in the A-League is the championship, decided by the playoff series culminating in the Grand Final. Qualifying for this championship playoff series is by virtue of finishing in the top 6 places during the league – it might be best to think of it as a smaller scale Cup competition, with positions decided by a club’s performance in the league. The champions are also granted an Asian Champions League berth – unless, like last season, the premiers are also crowned champions – in this case the Grand Final runners-up will be awarded a spot.
Now, getting back to the top 6 system. It’s structured so that the teams are essentially grouped into two separate brackets. The top two teams playoff in a two-legged tie with the winner proceeding to the Grand Final, while the loser moves to the Preliminary Final. The remaining four teams enter a series of “sudden death” matches with the one team that comes out on top qualifying for the Preliminary Final. The illustration below shows the process:
The system is something akin to the NFL’s Wildcards, with the lowest qualifying teams able to progress, but only by overcoming rather long odds.
To sum up the points I’ve been trying to make:
- the league (regular season over 27 rounds) determines the Premiers (first past the post at the end of the regular season) as well as the six participants in the championship playoffs.
- the Grand Final determines the Champions.
- The two teams finishing first and second in the league afforded a much more favorable draw in the playoffs with teams three through six entering a series of one-off, knockout matches.
- Asian Champions League spots are awarded to the Premiers and the Champions.