How does the men's college baseball World Series work?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why doesn’t anyone watch men’s college baseball? I think it’s because the format of their tournament is impossible to understand. I might watch it if I understood how it works. Could you tell me? How does the men’s college baseball World Series work?


Dear Stacy,

Men’s college baseball often gets a bad rap. This is partially because professional baseball has an extensive minor league system that snaps up many of the future professional baseball players before they hit college. Losing these players robs college baseball of the air of elite competition that college football and basketball still have. Another factor certainly is persistent slight confusion around how a championship team is determined. The men’s college World Series follows a more complex format than most competitions we’re used to watching, but it’s not beyond our understanding by any means. Here’s how it works.

The tournament begins, like March Madness, the college basketball tournament does, with 64 teams. In the baseball championship, these teams are split into 16 groups of four teams each. These groups of four teams will play each other until one can be identified as the winner of the group. That team moves on to the next round of the tournament. This round, with 64 teams is called the Regional. The next round, with only 16 teams is called the Super Regional. Although groups of four are reminiscent of the men’s World Cup and the women’s World Cup in soccer, there are two major differences. Instead of two or three teams advancing from the group of four, as in the World Cup, only one team advances. Also, the format of competition is different. Instead of a round robing, where each team plays the others once, this part of the college baseball championships are played as a double elimination tournament.

The principle of double-elimination is simple. The teams play each other until every team but one has lost twice. As teams accrue their second defeats, they are eliminated from the tournament. Pretty easy, right? The only tricky part is how to decide who plays who. Within each group, the four teams are ranked or seeded from one to four. This allows the succeeding games to be played out formulaically.

  • Game 1: Team 1 plays Team 4
  • Game 2: Team 2 plays Team 3
  • Game 3: The winner of Game 1 plays the winner of Game 2
  • Game 4: The loser of Game 1 plays the loser of Game 2
  • Game 5: The loser of Game 3 plays the winner of Game 4
  • Game 6: The winner of Game 3 plays the winner of Game 5. Note that at this point, the winner of Game 3 is, by definition, undefeated. They won the first game they played — either Game 1 or Game 2 — and then won the matchup between themselves and the winner of the other of the first two games. Their opponent in this game has to have lost a single game before. In order to play in and win Game 5 to qualify for this game, they would have had to either lose Game 1 or 2 (and win Game 4) or lose Game 3. That’s all just a complicated way to say that this game, Game 6 is between a team with one loss and a team with zero losses. If the team that comes into this game with one loss, loses, then the regional is over. Every team will have lost two games. If they win, then both teams involved will only have one loss and another game, Game 7, must be played to decide who advances.
  • Game 7: The same two teams as Game 6, if needed to decide a regional champion.

For bonus confusion, seeing “Game 7, if needed” triggers thoughts in a sports fan’s mind of a best-four-out-of-seven series. This is the most common playoff format, used in professional baseball, hockey, and basketball. In that format, Game 7s may not be needed if one team beats the other four times in the first four, five, or six games. That’s why you’ll also see “Game 5, if needed” or “Game 6, if needed) in those sports. Never in college baseball’s regionals — in the double elimination format within groups of four teams, only the seventh game is dependent on earlier results to be necessary. The first six will always be played.

After the Regional round, the teams advance to the Super Regionals. In the Super Regionals, the 16 remaining teams are grouped into pairings of two teams each. These pairings are pre-set before the tournament, the winner of Group A will play the winner of Group B, no matter who those winners are. Within each pairing, the teams play a best-two-out-of-three series. In a sense, this is still a double elimination format, but it’s not unusual in the way the Regional round format was. Best-two-out-of-three is easily understood. It’s how many people settled sibling or friendly disputes as kids, with rock-paper-scissors or odds and evens.

The Super Regional best-two-out-of-three series get the field from 16 to eight teams. From there, the tournament enters the College World Series. This eight team tournament within a tournament follows the same pattern as the last two rounds, just with fewer teams. First, the eight teams are split into two groups of four. Within those groups, the teams play a double-elimination tournament like they did in the Regional round above. Once this is done, six more teams (three in each group of four) will have been eliminated. The remaining two teams face each other in a best-two-out-of-three game series to crown an overall men’s college World Series champion.

This year, 2015, those two teams are Virginia and Vanderbilt — the same two teams as last year. The series starts tonight, Monday, June 22 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Game 2 will be Tuesday at the same time and channel and Game Three (if needed) will be on Wednesday at the same time and channel. Last year, Vanderbilt won the first game 9-8, lost the second 2-7, but won the third and deciding game, 3-2 to become the 2014 champion. Only time will tell if they can repeat or if Virginia will take their revenge.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How does the away goals tie-breaker work in soccer?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does the away goals tie-breaker work in soccer? I’ve been loving the Champions League this year but I’m confused by away goals and why they are so important.

Random Name That’s Totally Not Me Asking Myself Questions I Want To Answer

Dear Rand,

How fortuitous of you to ask this question today! There’s a perfect example that I can use to explain how the away goals tie-breaker works in soccer in the two UEFA Champions League games this afternoon!

Many soccer tournaments, particularly in European club soccer, are organized into series of two games. In American sports that have series, like baseball, basketball, and hockey, the series are always an odd number of games. They are either best-two-out-of-three series, best-three-out-of-five series, or most commonly, best-four-out-of-seven series. The odd number allows for one team to always end the three, five, or seven games with a conclusive advantage in terms of how many games each team won. So, how does a two game series work? It works on goals, not winning or losing. In fact, in a two game series, also called a tie, winning or losing each of the two games is meaningless to the result of the series. In these series, you don’t, as NFL coach Herm Edwards once said, “play to win the game,” you play to score more overall or aggregate goals over the course of the two games than your opponent. A team that loses 2-0 in the first game of the series can win the series by winning the second game 3-0 or 8-4.

As you might expect with such a low scoring game like soccer, after only two games, it’s pretty regular for teams to have scored the same number of goals. This is called being tied on aggregate goals. In this case, something else needs to be done to determine the winner of the series. That something else varies from competition to competition. Many tournaments have the teams play an overtime period. Some of them use a penalty kicks to settle the winner. Lots of tournaments though, the Champions League among them, use away goals as the first way to break ties. Away goals are simple to comprehend but a little tricky in practice to understand. An away goal is scored by a team playing in the other team’s stadium. Since there are two games in these series, one is played at each team’s home stadium. Being at home has its advantages, so it’s generally thought that scoring away from home is more difficult and therefore more impressive. At the end of the two games, the team with more goals scored away from home has won the away goals tie-breaker.

The tricky part is running through all the scenarios that come up for the second game of the series. Here it’s helpful to use examples. Luckily, we have two this afternoon that provide perfect examples to study the away goals tie-breaker. Here’s the situation.

Barcelona vs. Paris Saint-Germain

Game 1 in Paris — Barcelona 3, Paris Saint-Germain 1
Game 2 in Barcelona is today.

Bayern Munich vs. FC Porto

Game 1 in Porto — FC Porto 3, Bayern Munich 1
Game 2 in Munich is today.

At first glance, these series look the same. In both series, one team is ahead 3-1 after the first game of the two game tie. The difference is that the team with three goals in one series played the first game at home while the other played the first game away. While the aggregate goal tally is the same, 3-1 in each series, the away goals tally is very different. Barcelona, the team leading in the first series has 3 away goals while Porto, the team leading in the second series has none because they haven’t played on the road yet. Despite losing 3-1 in the first game, Bayern Munich is actually leading in away goals, 1-0. This may seem like a small difference but it matters enormously to the possible outcomes today. Assume that each team that is down 3-1 wins their game today 2-0. Here’s what the results would be if that happened.

Barcelona vs. Paris Saint-Germain

Game 1 in Paris — Barcelona 3, Paris Saint-Germain 1
Game 2 in Barcelona — Barcelona 0, Paris Saint-Germain 2

Bayern Munich vs. FC Porto

Game 1 in Porto — FC Porto 3, Bayern Munich 1
Game 2 in Munich — FC Porto 0, Bayern Munich 2

Both series would be 3-3 in terms of aggregate goals but look at the tally in away goals. In the first series, Barcelona would have 3 away goals and Paris Saint-Germain only two. Barcelona would advance. In the second series, Bayern would still have one away goal and Porto, which lost 2-0 when it was on the road, would have zero. Bayern Munich would advance.

The away goals tie-breaker makes it much more difficult for Paris Saint-Germain to advance today than Bayern Munich, despite their both losing 3-1 in the first games of the series.

Thanks for reading and please tell me if this still doesn’t make sense,
Ezra Fischer

How does European club soccer work?

European soccer has a bewildering array of teams and competitions. It’s often hard to understand how European club soccer works, even for people who love soccer. Many of the things sports fans in the United States take for granted about how professional sports works are simply not true in European soccer. As with many elements of sports, almost no one in the sports media ever stops to explain the intricacies of a system that, once you start to grapple with it, is not that hard to understand. So, without further ado, let’s answer the question: how does European club soccer work?

Domestic Leagues

The first stop on our journey through European soccer is the domestic leagues. A domestic league is an organization of soccer teams within a single country that play a schedule of games against other teams in their league each year. In U.S. professional sports, only the NFL is truly a domestic league. The other major sports leagues, the NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS are all quasi domestic leagues because they have at least one team in Canada. What the heck, let’s annex Canada for the purpose of this post and call these domestic leagues. The similarity between these leagues and Domestic soccer leagues in Europe are create much of the confusion for North American sports fans in understanding European soccer, because the truth is, they’re not very similar at all. Understanding how they are different is key to understanding how European soccer works.

  • There are no playoffs in most domestic European Leagues. Teams generally play every other team in the league twice during the season. At the end of the season, the team with the best record wins. If there is a tie, a single tie-breaking playoff game might be played, but that’s it. This is really different from North American sports leagues, where the regular season is primarily a race for playoff seeding.
  • Domestic leagues in Europe are not solitary organizations. They exist within a hierarchy of leagues in their country. This exists to some extent in North America, most successfully in Major League Baseball, which has a series of minor leagues. The difference is that in baseball, only players move from league to league. In European soccer, teams do! It’s called relegation. At the end of every domestic league season, a few (the numbers vary by country) of the worst teams in each league move down to a lower league while a few of the top teams in each league move up. Teams that are promoted up a league stand to gain an incredible financial boost, from the league, television contracts, endorsements, and fan support. Being demoted or relegated down a league is a sporting and financial disaster.
  • Club teams don’t just play games within their domestic league. They simultaneously participate in other competitions against club teams within their country and internationally. We’ll cover those competitions below.

Here are some of the most famous and competitive domestic leagues in Europe. I’ve organized them into tiers based on how many qualification spots they get into the most prestigious international club soccer competition, the Champions League. More on that soon.

Top Tier Domestic LeaguesLa Liga – SpainPremier League – EnglandBundesliga – Germany

Close but not quite the bestSerie A – ItalyPrimeira Liga – PortugalLigue 1 – France

The best of the restPremiere League – UkrainePremier League – RussiaEredivisie – NetherlandsSüper Lig – TurkeyJupiler Pro League – BelgiumSuperleague – GreeceRaiffeisen Super League – SwitzerlandFirst Division – CyprusSuperliga – Denmark

That’s a lot of leagues, but there are at least 39 others in Europe, from Wales to Macedonia and back again.

While these 54 or so domestic league seasons are taking shape, many of the teams in those leagues will play in other tournaments. These tournaments, generally called Cups or Leagues themselves, have a format that will be familiar to most soccer fans. They begin win one or more group stages, where teams, usually four, in a group play each other in a round-robin to decide which team moves on to the knock-out stage. The only wrinkle to many of them is that instead of a single game against another team, most of these tournaments have teams play each other twice, once at each team’s home stadium. After the two games, the team that has scored more goals in the two games combined, advances.

Domestic Cups

During a soccer club’s domestic league season, they will usually also take part in at least one Domestic Cup. A Domestic Cup is a tournament of club teams within one, a set, or all the domestic leagues within a country. These tournaments can be divided generally between League Cups and Association Cups. League Cups are those that restrict their entries to teams in one or two or a handful of domestic leagues. Association Cups are open to every team in an entire country’s domestic league system. There’s something very attractive and truly crazy about the open-endedness of an Association Cup. If sport is supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy, then why not let a team of semi-professional players with a budget of only a few thousand euros or pounds go up against one of the biggest and richest teams in the world? Miraculous upsets really only happen once every twenty or thirty years but when the do, they’re worth savoring, and they lend the entire tournament an air of romance.

A few of the most famous domestic cups and most widely televised ones in the United States are:

The Copa del Rey in Spain, which is a League Cup with only teams from the top two divisions, plus a select group from the third and fourth divisions, invited. The FA Cup in England. This is England’s famous association cup. The Football League Cup in England. Now called the Capital One cup, this is England’s most famous league cup, open only to teams from the top two leagues.

International Club Competitions

As you might suspect from the interrelated nature of Europe’s politics, some of its best club soccer comes in games between teams from different countries who play in different leagues. The Champions League is the premier international tournament of club soccer in the world. It’s such a big deal, that for most teams, winning a Champions League title is a bigger deal than winning a domestic cup or their league championship itself. This is a little hard to understand for most American sports fans. Once we identify the parallel between the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL and a domestic soccer league in Europe, it’s hard for us to imagine that anything could be more important than winning a league championship, but it is.

The Champions League is itself a complicated beast. I wrote a post just about how it works, which I suggest if you want a more detailed description. The short story is that the top one, two, three, or four teams from each domestic league are invited to play in the Champions League. The exact number is based on the overall strength of the league in recent years. In the tiered set of leagues above, the top tier gets four spots, the second tier, three, the third tier, two, and the other 39 leagues only get one spot for their domestic league champion to enter the Champions League. The Champions League happens throughout the soccer season, during and in between domestic league games. So, one year’s Champions League is made up of teams who qualified based on their performance in domestic leagues the year before. The current domestic league season determines qualification for next year’s Champions League. It’s all a little like the famous pre-taped call-in show.

The Europa League is to the Champions League what the NIT is to the NCAA Tournament in American college basketball. It’s a second-tier international club competition. It’s recently become more interesting because the overall winner of the Europa League will get a (close-to) automatic spot in next year’s Champions League. That alone is worth enough to a soccer team and its fans to make this once-mostly-ignored competition more interesting.

Well, I hope this has helped. I’ve found that watching European soccer can be quite rewarding. Its strange elements make me think about how sports leagues are set up and open my mind to thinking about the benefits of different forms of competition. A lot of the soccer is also very high quality — some say it’s actually better than the World Cup. It’s more accessible now than it’s ever been before. Games are televised live, mostly on NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and beIN Sports, but also on NBC and Fox. Game times are often mid-afternoon during the week and on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Give it a try sometime and let me know what you think!