Bracketville: Stay As Long As You Can

We’ve hit the business end of the Women’s World Cup, and as with any quadrennial sporting event, the teams still around are taking stock of their place in history. The United States defeated Germany 2-0 on Tuesday in a matchup featuring four of the six previous champions that many labeled the ‘true’ championship; either side going on to win it all would make that nation the first to three titles. The actual reigning champions, Japan, are still defending the belt, having defeated an England team that is the first of either gender to reach a semifinal since 1990, a result that is getting England at large to stand up and drop their long-held apathy towards the women’s game, just in time to get heartbroken in ways that know no gender. The Japanese hope to become only the second team to mount a successful defense.

Those who have crashed out, meanwhile, are taking stock of how they did, what went wrong, and what it bodes for the future. Canada, which itself has topped out at a fourth-place finish in 2003 and made the knockouts this year for only the second time, is blaming its lack of playoff experience for its 2-1 defeat at the hands of England in the quarterfinals. England will be consoling itself over the last-second own goal by defensewoman Laura Bassett that sent them out for a long time to come. The tournament’s various debutantes- and there were eight of them (Cameroon, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand)- are understandably looking at their rookie status and gauging whether they should just be happy to get what they got or whether they should have expected more. Usually, it’s the former. None of them made it into the quarterfinals. Cameroon, the highest-finishing of the group (11th), is over the moon with their outing, having beaten two of the other rookies (6-0 over Switzerland, 2-1 over Ecuador), to go alongside a 2-1 loss to the Japanese and their 1-0 elimination against China in the round of 16. Ecuador finished dead last, scoring one goal and conceding 17, but the consensus going in was that they were out of their league going in anyway and that being in the World Cup was the victory.

French midfielder Camille Abily, meanwhile, blames the bracket. Remember that places in the World Cup- as well as a lot of major tournaments requiring preset host cities- the fixture grid is made out in advance, with the host cities knowing far in the future what games and dates they will host, and the teams that will contest those games figured out via the draw. In the men’s World Cup, the host nation is manually placed into the fixture grid and the rest of the field is drawn into their places. In the women’s World Cup, at least this year, all six of the seeded teams were manually placed into groups, with a clear eye on where those teams were going to go in the knockout bracket presuming they won their groups, which all six of them did.

As expected, seeded France won their group. The result was that, as they were to work their way to the final in Vancouver, their round-of-16 game, quarterfinal and semifinal were all scheduled for French-speaking Montreal. Canada was also given three knockouts in the same city, that being Vancouver (their semifinal would have been in Edmonton). That shook out nicely for France. What didn’t shake out nicely was the teams in those brackets: France, Germany and the United States- pegged as the three strongest teams in the field- all being on the same side of the bracket, with Canada being handed a half where the weaker set of Brazil, Japan and England were the strongest of the class, and the strongest of those, Brazil and Japan, being held off until Canada’s semifinal. In essence, a bracket designed to advance Canada as far as possible. France went down to Germany, drawing 1-1 and then losing 5-4 in a quarterfinal penalty shootout.

I won’t go so far as to say Abily doesn’t have a beef here. Shenanigans were most definitely had with the fixture grid. And it’s not like that’s the only beef the women have had this Cup; the artificial turf is causing every single problem the players railed against and were utterly ignored despite. The Japan/Australia quarterfinal in Edmonton was reported by FOX reporter Kyndra de St. Aubin as having a turf temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, I think there’s only so much that can be placed upon bracket construction as a cause for failing to win a title. If you’re a team that isn’t projected to go far, sure, it can have an effect on how long you do go. But the entire idea of a bracket is to get a large field whittled down to one champion by pitting them against each other, with the presumptive result being that one of the strongest sides will be the last one standing, and even if it’s not the strongest, they went through a gauntlet to get there.

The general hope is that your relative strength as a competitor should correlate roughly with the path you have to travel in the bracket to reach the title. In most national cup competitions, this is very strictly enforced through the usage of multiple rounds of byes, forcing weaker teams to play several matches just to reach the rounds where the stronger teams enter the bracket. In the 2014-15 FA Cup, the 368 teams entering in the opening ‘Extra Preliminary Round’ would have to get through that, the Preliminary Round, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Qualifying Rounds, and the 1st and 2nd Rounds Proper before reaching the 3rd Round Proper, where Premier League teams entered the fray. Out of the 736 clubs who competed, the Premier League and second-tier Championship do not get involved until 672 of those clubs have already been eliminated.

But once they are in, the draw is completely blind. It is entirely possible for the strongest two teams in the field to meet as soon as they join the fray. North American playoff systems go as far in the opposite direction as they feel they can, seeding each and every team that makes the field. The straightest example is the NBA playoffs, where the top eight teams in each conference’s regular season are simply seeded 1-8, bracketed accordingly, and turned loose on each other. The most famous example, though, is in NCAA basketball. 68 teams in the men’s edition and 64 in the women’s are each seeded 1-16, with the provision that teams from the same conference are kept apart for at least the first couple rounds, and much, much, oh so very much is made about where they fall in the bracket, or whether they get into the bracket at all.

There are teams that get in who are far weaker than teams that don’t. Teams who, at the conclusion of the regular season, nobody would call a national champion. But all place faith in the bracket to sort it all out. Whatever sins and merits your season may have included are all boiled down into a seed number and a path on the bracket. All those sins will, without question, be forgiven, and all will consider you a legitimate national champion, just so long as you run this gauntlet of six (or seven) games without a single loss and make sure that you’re the last team standing. By the time you get there, you will assuredly have faced and beaten enough quality opposition that any doubts about you have been thoroughly erased.

Not that it hasn’t gone completely in the opposite direction. The logical extreme to what Abily has brought up came in the late 1960’s NHL. It was the end of the Original Six era, more or less enforced by a number of outside factors, as the NHL was itself perfectly happy continuing to only have six teams and in fact fought to keep from having to expand beyond that. Rival leagues were popping up in unserved markets, and US television networks made it clear in 1965 that the league, which had not had a TV deal in the US since 1960, would not get one back without expansion, with at least one network stating that they were looking just as much into airing the rival WHL instead. And the WHL was also looking to perhaps merge with the AHL. CBS, who finally gave the progressively-more-panicked NHL the contract, further dictated that they would want two expansion teams to be located in California. The result was teams in Oakland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, doubling the reluctant league’s size.

But they were six expansion teams. Everybody knew they’d get slaughtered as soon as they stepped onto the ice with the Original Six. As a measure of easing them into the league, the Original Six would make up one division, the Eastern Division, and the expansion teams would, geography be damned, make up the Western Division. The playoffs would be carried out as such, guaranteeing that an expansion team would make the Stanley Cup Finals. The regular season in 1968 bore this out, as five of the six Eastern teams- all but the Detroit Red Wings- had a better record than the Western-leading Philadelphia Flyers. Nobody in the West finished with a winning record. Nonetheless, the St. Louis Blues emerged as Western champions and lined up against the Montreal Canadiens in the final.

Now hockey fans will tell you, and you’ve likely already guessed, that Montreal promptly pound the stuffing out of St. Louis 4 games to 0. And then the same result happened in 1969, and then it was Boston’s turn to sweep St. Louis in 1970, and then new expansion teams in Buffalo and Vancouver caused things to start mixing a bit. But had St. Louis beaten Montreal or Boston in any of those finals, despite having an obviously far easier path to the title, would their title have been diminished? No. They would have lifted the same Stanley Cup as anyone else. They would have had to knock off an Original Six team to get there, after all. A strong one. THAT team certainly wouldn’t have been able to complain.

That’s the beauty of a bracket. You can, ultimately, structure it just about any way you choose. Give teams as easy or as difficult a path as you want. The paths won’t stay easy forever. Sooner or later, that weaker team is going to have to answer the bell against the elites. The bracket will, inevitably, force them together.

Perhaps it wasn’t the best result for France and Germany to meet in a quarterfinal instead of a semifinal or a final. But they met. And in the end, in any bracket, you simply have to beat who’s put in front of you.

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