Heading into this September international break, we should be looking at a dormant schedule in Major League Soccer. That’s not the case, and instead it is chocked full of fixtures. For instance, a Chicago Fire team in the mix for the Eastern Conference Playoffs gets to face a depleted Seattle Sounders team minus Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey.
In a world where most leagues break, MLS keeps churning. But that may change.
Yesterday on NBC Sports’ ProSoccerTalk site, Steve Davis divulged a plan reportedly kicked around by owners at recent meetings during the All-Star game. They are considering shrinking the league schedule from 34 games to 28 games, possibly by 2015 when the league expands to 20.
For a 20-team league, 28 is convenient with two 10-team conferences. A team plays home and away against their conference rivals, and one game against teams from the other conference.
But is this really the right move for a league looking to be one of the best in the world?
Can you make a convoluted schedule more convoluted?
MLS isn’t afraid to buck tradition. They seem to enjoy going against the good ol’ double round-robin, single table, promotion/relegation system that much of the world accepts as proper. When Portland and Vancouver entered the league in 2011, MLS decided not to expand the schedule past 34. That began the unbalanced schedule, and adding another 4 teams past NYCFC will not rectify this situation. The league has to do something.
Let’s take a look at the current predicament. 19 teams was always going to be a poor number to idle on for a few years. I’m not sure why MLS decided to table further expansion after adding Montreal, but they always seemed keen on that 20th team being a bonafide New York franchise. The schedule already gets convoluted a bit from CONCACAF Champions League and US Open Cup participation. With 19 teams, MLS also adds a necessary bye for at least one team every match weekend.
That has led to a further complication of the table. If you want to figure out who’s in the driver’s seat in a conference, good luck. On paper Montreal is best in the East on a points earned per game basis, but they could lose both games in hand they currently possess. It doesn’t get much easier as you move to deciphering the 4-7 spots. And don’t even bother trying the West, with top-of-the-table Real Salt Lake playing 4 more games to this point than Seattle. Sheesh.
What does all that have to do with scheduling? And why would moving to 28 games be a benefit?
Only 28 games? Really?
Shrinking the schedule is almost counter-intuitive to the typical soccer fan, as 34 games seems low in comparison to the 38-game gold standard for 20-team top divisions (though the German Bundesliga goes with 34 games, a product of 18 teams). Davis gave a few reasons, including the desire to not have to play during FIFA breaks. I’m not convinced that really bothers the owners at all.
Cutting back on the fixture congestion would likely make the disparity in games played less of a problem. Teams wouldn’t have to fill midweeks so often, accommodating the other competitions. It would also provide more flexibility for their cash cow, high-profile friendly events against European powers training for the new season.
Another consideration is that the league and its owners may want the playoffs & MLS Cup to mean even more. While many fans would like to see the Supporter’s Shield take on greater meaning, playoffs usually mean dollars in America. Moving to 28 games would dull the value of topping the regular season table even more. A knockout playoff for MLS Cup would be legitimized further as the true test, and theoretically could help television ratings.
We can also consider depth. MLS teams can’t afford the extra costs of harboring two separate squads of 1st-team quality. A few could, if the financial restraints weren’t in place (LA, New York, Seattle primarily). But that would be largely unsustainable in MLS at the moment. Cutting back on fixtures means less wear-and-tear for all teams, and could help fitness towards competitions such as the coveted CONCACAF Champions League.
Lastly, we always must remember that there are negotiations that are on the horizon. The owners want to keep control on things, and the threat of reducing the fixture list could be a bargaining chip at the table with the MLS Players Association. Davis didn’t include any information on whether the owners would want to force contract adjustments based on 6 fewer games, but it wouldn’t be out of the question.
As soon as MLS decided to stop expanding the schedule with 18 teams, we knew that the days of a balanced schedule were gone. With the possibility of 24 teams on the horizon, we’re never going back, and it’s going to take some creative thinking for the league to create a schedule that is reasonably fair to all. They probably won’t implement these changes, but there needs to be some work done to help make this process easier.