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Lies, damned lies and statistical lies

A few weeks ago I took a look at CONCACAF Coefficients as worked out by Hexaganol blog. This was my basis for ranking MLS in the 20-25 range in the world, as I tried to judge the performance of MLS clubs in SuperLiga (not included in Hexaganol's work) and the performance of CONCACAF teams in other competitions (Libertadores, Sudamerica, Pan-Pacific Championship, Club World Cup).

I still think that 20-25 is a decent ranking that takes into account the overall quality of the league - both its lack of a single top heavy performer as well as its overall depth. Goal.com had a recent counterattack that had MLS ranked either in the 8-10 range, or in the 11-15. Both sides gave decent arguments, and one could believe that by taking a middle table MLS club in leagues would be the best way to judge overall talent. I think that is a fine example. It is notable that in Europe their coefficients have more depth, as there are play-ins in two levels of Cup (Champions League and Copa Europa).

The fact is that Americans are obsessed with rankings, so when an organization like the IFFHS comes out with the absurd statement that the USA has the 77th best league, serious questions are raised as to methodology.

From their notes we can easily figure out some of the things that they do wrong.

The classification of the best leagues of the world is made objectively without any outside influence of any sort. We follow the criteria that the level of performance of a league is reflected by the best classified teams of that league who in turn usually represent their country in international club competitions. If one looks at the football power-houses of the world, one notices that regularly 4 or 5 clubs of their leagues are always competing in continental competitions. By adding the points won in all competitions by the five best placed clubs of each league, we have the points for the country which in turn helps to establish a fair classification. It is important to note that only the yearly classification is representative, since all competitions move along the whole season and over twelve months, we have an objective view of the best. This system has been used since 1991, and it is recognized today as the most precise in rating the leagues of the world.

Kudos for having a consistent methodology, and so no matter the level of accuracy that can lead us to some decent trend discussions. But there are issues with that methodology.

For me the MOST significant issue is that Canada nor Puerto Rico don't make that top 100 at all. Sure the results are for 2007 and should not have taken in the 2008 CONCACAF Champions League, but in 2007 Montreal, Vancouver BC and Puerto Rico both made the USL-1 playoffs. The Islanders also dominated group play and eventually lost in the quarterfinals to Joe Public. The IFFHS does not track those performances. 2007 did not have a Canadian champion, but shouldn't the records of performance by the other nations' clubs in MLS and USL-1/2 effect the overall rankings of the leagues? This would seem to be necessary.

Secondly, I would have to guess that IFFHS did not include SuperLiga 2007 in their results? Why do I feel this? Because the 2007 Superliga had 3 MLS clubs make the semi-finals. SuperLiga is in effect the second level of CONCACAF competition after the Champions Cup/League. Why shouldn't this count towards rankings?

Thirdly, I don't think taking the top 5 clubs in each league demonstrates overall league strength. There are two other methods that I would prefer. The better of these would be to include ALL competitions between national leagues/teams (to include friendlies), for MLS clubs this would mean PPC, CCL, SL and lastly friendlies between clubs. Second of these would be to just include the performance of all clubs that qualify for the top 2 international tournaments within each region. While this would reduce the interaction between FIFA Conferences, it would do a much better job of demonstrating the depth of a league. There is no reason that the EPL should be rewarded for Champions League play and be ignored for the performance of its teams that qualified for the UEFA Cup.

So no, MLS isn't 77th. It isn't even close to 77th. It certainly isn't in the top 6 (easily EPL, LaLiga, Bundes, Serie A, Argentina, Brazil), nor the second tier of leagues (Mexico, France, Portugal, Championship, Netherlands). It likely belongs in the next tier with the best of Africa, Asia, South America's 3rd & 4th leagues. We will see a greater depth of performance from 2009 forward by MLS and USL clubs with the rules changes for CCL, SL, the Open Cup and NCC. Including all performances by all clubs that interact throughout the world will give us a better judge of talent. Sure the project would be more difficult than just following five teams in each nations' top league, but it would also be much more accurate in this era.