MLS to have unbalanced schedule in 2012

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber announced today that the league will have an unbalanced schedule in the 2012 season.

"We will have a 34-game schedule. Therefore, it will be unbalanced," Garber said in his State of the League conference call today.

With 19 teams in the league next year, a balanced schedule would have 36 games.

"We're going to put together a schedule that will drive the most interest from our fan base and be as competitively balanced as we can," Garber said. "I don't think it's going to be that big of a shift.

Garber added that there is a "very strong possibility" that the highest remaining playoff seed would host the MLS Cup Final.

That would be a significant change from the neutral-site format that has been used for the championship game since the league's inception in 1996. It is, though, something that many observers across the league have expressed interest in seeing.

As to how teams would get to the final, Garber said "our playoff format is up for discussion."

Here is the entirety of Garber's prepared remarks on the matter:

We have been getting together our competition committee several times over the past year… to go through a real re-think of our competition format.

I would have liked to be able to announce the resolution of some of the things we are talking about today. I hope to be able to announce some of that at MLS Cup. But I can give you a sense of what it is that we’re talking about, what kinds of things that committee is hopefully going to come out of today with a firm recommendation for the MLS Board [of Governors] meeting next Saturday.

One of the things we can say is that we will have a 34-game schedule. Therefore, it will be unbalanced. What we’re working on now, over the next week – I think we’re pretty far along in a lot of these areas – the first [thing] is a very strong possibility of awarding the MLS Cup [championship game venue] based on regular-season performance.

The remaining club that has the most number of points from the regular season would host the [championship game]. It’s been a neutral-site, and it’s worked out gangbusters [this year] with the Galaxy, but it’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t be able to do this in every market for the team that earns that right.

In terms of the 2012 schedule and format issues, our playoff format is up for discussion. So are some new initiatives in terms of promoting attacking soccer [and] some changes to our discipline code.

I asked Garber what factors went into the decision to have an unbalanced schedule, and whether the league's TV networks - which now include the Comcast-owned NBC Sports Group - offered any advice.

Garber's answer:

It’s very simple. I’ve described it this way, and I’ve been criticized for it. To me, it’s simple math. Thirty-eight games would be almost impossible for us to execute with the other competitions that we are required to play, the weather issues that we have, the stadium availability challenges that exist in a handful of markets, the FIFA dates.

All the things that we have to do differently in the United States from what leagues have to abide by in other parts of the world.

Most important from a competitive perspective is the travel impact in this country. We did some statistics on this, and I think you guys would be shocked to know that the [Vancouver] Whitecaps traveled almost 60,000 miles this year. And the clubs on the lower end traveled around 30,000 miles.

To put that in perspective, a typical European club is traveling about 5,000 round-trip miles for their games. Manchester United had 3,500 miles… So the more games we add, the more travel and impact it has on our players, and therefore reduces the quality of our play.

I know fans like things a certain way, because they’re watching the Premier League, but we live here in the United States and we have certain restrictions and facts of life that we have to manage…

It’s premature to talk about how it lays out, but I’ll talk broadly. We believe rivalries are important, and help drive passion that fans have for their teams - and their desire to watch those clubs, and ultimately hate, on national television.

One of our objectives is to grow our national fan base, and grow our television ratings. In order to do that, we believe it has to be done from within. Rivalries, we believe, will help be the fuel to drive that energy, and it’s a big part of our strategy.

So I think people will see in a week, when we lay all this out, that a rivalry focus will be a big part of the new format.

Garber was later asked by Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America whether MLS could “solve some of your problems with a little more organization of your scheduling” regarding travel, perhaps by playing more midweek games.

Garber’s answer:

I don’t know the statistics, but our midweek attendances have skyrocketed. Years ago it was something that we would worry about, and we had to actually schedule around a philosophy to avoid midweek games.

But you can put a game on a Tuesday night, a Thursday night, a school night, in the middle of the summer, in the rain or the snow. People are going to come out in Seattle, and Portland, and Philly, and Kansas City, and many other markets. So that’s much less a concern of ours. And frankly, it’s not really the driver that it once was in some of our scheduling decisions.

Teams will have a bye in their schedule because of having 19 teams. And we’re pretty smart: we know that when we take a team from Philly to L.A., and then from L.A. back to New York, it’s not because we didn’t pick that up. It’s because there was something that happened in the schedule that required us to make that decision.

Mahoney then asked Garber about how much MLS will lose by not having some of the league’s big teams travel to every team in the league this season.

Garber's answer:

There are a lot of factors that go into the decision to be unbalanced. We have things that we are going to have to sacrifice.

But we believe that at the end of the day, the benefits to what we are trying to achieve broadly and strategically, to achieve a vision of being one of the top leagues in the world, will be delivered with the schedule format that we’re going to come out with in a week.

It’s a very complicated process. We have a person who does it full-time here, with outside computer consultants. There’s an algorithm that goes into laying out the schedule, and there’s a person who’s living and breathing this every single day. [That person] has been with the league for 15 years, too. 

Garber offered more insight into what the schedule will look like in response to a question from Noel Butler, the Montréal-based TV analyst and radio show host for The Sports Network in Canada.

At the end of the day, we’re going to put together a schedule that will drive the most interest from our fan base, and be the most competitively balanced as we possibly can achieve.

We hope to get the schedule out in, I think, mid-December, or maybe early January at the latest. I think we’ll get it out earlier this year than any year in the history of our league.

We’re actually working on a plan to be able to issue broad schedule dates over a multi-year period, as part of one of these initiatives that we’ve been working on toward our long-term goals.

Garber promised more details about the schedule changes in coming weeks, and that there will be a conference call expressly for that purpose when the details are finalized.

Here's what Garber had to say regarding some other subjects of conversation around MLS.

On criticism of the league's referees:

[We are looking at] a real deep dive on officiating, and trying to find, in partnership with U.S. Soccer and the [Canadian Soccer Association], a new approach to how we can manage the officiating aspect of our business.

That goes into all aspects: who they are, where they come from, who they work for and how they’re paid, to assessment and other things.

Let me make a comment on this, and I don’t know that it’s something our fans would agree with, but our officiating is a hell of a lot better than our fans give us credit for. I think a lot of this is perception versus reality.

I think the gap between our players, perhaps, and those that are playing at the world-class level is a wider gap than the difference between our officials and those that are officiating in places like the Premier League.

I just think that it’s an evolutionary process for everyone associated with our game to really understand that. We have the benefit of being able to look at every single play, and digest it, and tear it apart with camera angles that our broadcast partners don’t have and our fans don’t have. We know that the officiating isn’t as bad as many people around this country believe it is.

On whether David Beckham will be back in MLS next year:

 I certainly hope to see him back. I don’t know that I expect him to be there… David has delivered for us on all aspects of our expectations, both on and off the field. David had a terrific year this year. It would be hard to argue that he wasn’t one of the more important players on our fields, and really contributed to the team and the league competitively.

Off the field, he continues to be an important part of what drives some of the popularity of our league, both here and around the world. He remains a very popular guy. His presence on the sports pages, but also on the people pages, continues to grow as opposed to wane here in America, and we benefit by that.

The last thing I would say is that MLS wouldn’t be what it is today if David didn’t decide to come and play in Major League Soccer. All of us appreciate everything that he’s done.

It hasn’t been perfect – I don’t think any relationship is ever perfect. There are certainly some things we might have done a little differently. But all in all, it’s been a really big success.

On progress with player development: 

We now have over 40 kids that have come out of our academies and signed pro contracts. You think about the fact that it was just a few years ago that we didn’t have academies at all.

We really believe that this will be a big driver of the connection that we can have in our local markets with the youth soccer-playing community. But more importantly, really, to help our country develop better players through a quicker path to a professional career…

[New England’s] Diego Fagundez and [Philadelphia’s] Zach Pfeffer have been good examples of young kids that have come out of that program, but there is no shortage of guys – [New York’s Juan] Agudelo is another great example of that…

In Toronto, they just broke ground on a $20 million academy and training ground. That’s the largest investment any of our clubs has made in a standalone facility. Hopefully in the right markets, this will be a model for other MLS clubs to be able to invest even more in this kind of facility.

On MLS’ relationship with the college soccer community:

C.J. Sapong [of Sporting Kansas City, this season’s Rookie of the Year] showed us that while we are very, very focused on the youth market, the college ranks are still an important part of our league’s story.

We believe for a period of time that is probably going to go out the next 10 years, college soccer is going to be an important part of the MLS player scene.

We continue to try to get closer to the NCAA to find more flexibility, and we continue to work closely with college coaches to find ways that we can help them develop better players, like the other pro leagues are able to achieve in the other [American] sports.

On investment in Designated Players:

Lots of investment in that area. We now have 23 DPs on our rosters, that’s up from just 13 at this same time last year. But very important is this move that we made to incentivize our clubs to find younger designated players. Guys like Fabian Castillo with FC Dallas. I think you are going to see more and impact, and more and more stories coming out of that initiative.

And by the way, that speaks to our system. [It’s] a system that many people have been critical of in the past, but we believe really is helping us to be able to evolve and chance on the fly. That’s the fact that our single-entity [structure] allows us to look at where opportunity resides, and then make structural changes very quickly.

The Designated Player youth initiative is an example of that.

On financial matters across the league:

Our revenues, from a ticketing perspective, have grown in most if not all of our markets. We had 87 sellouts during our regular season…

Soccer stadiums continue to get developed. We are ahead of schedule in Houston. We’re a bit behind schedule in Montréal, but we’re pretty confident we’ll be able to play at least half the games in the year in the new stadium in Montréal.

Television ratings across all of our networks saw double-digit growth. Clearly, we want to have larger audiences… but the bottom line is, we’re growing. More and more people are watching our games, and that’s important… I think that’s what led to the energy and aggressiveness behind the NBC Sports Group’s bid for the Fox Soccer package. We look forward to the beginning of that relationship in 2012…

I want to give a real thank-you to David Nathanson and the folks at Fox Soccer Channel. Particularly in the last couple of years, they did a great job for Major League Soccer. And we’re pleased to see that they’ve aggressively gone after growing their footprint by investing in the FIFA World Cup rights.

All of that is good for us. The more money that goes into soccer in America, the more that Major League Soccer will ultimately be able to benefit.

On potential expansion to New York City as the league’s 20th team, with particular regard to the Cosmos ownership group and its troubles:

There are a lot of things that need to happen before they would be able to purchase that team, and I’m sure they will be able to get through this issue. Representatives of the new ownership are coming to MLS Cup. We’ve met with them since the team transferred from Paul Kelmsley over to his partners who took over the majority of the ownership.

We’ll continue to work with them, but also with many others. People think we throw that out just to have leverage, but it’s not. People here in New York know that there are several potential ownership groups.

Until we are further along in the process, we’re going to speak to as many people as we can, because that’s the best way to ensure that we’ll get the best ownership group that will have the resources to be able to make the commitments to be good partners in Major League Soccer.

The issue remains the soccer stadium. We have a full-time person in this office working on the project. We’ve hired three consultants, attorneys, land-use advisors, stadium designers and architects to work directly with the league to try to accelerate this process.

We do believe we have two or three sites that are viable, and we’re going to continue to work as hard as we can to move this as fast as we can…

We have no timetable for it, and the timing is relatively irrelevant other than as it relates to what we do with those other markets that have interest. As we’re focused on New York City, what will happen to the interest in these other markets if we continue to push them further and further out?

The Cosmos were never a front-runner. We didn’t have any front-runner. It has always been multiple conversations with a wide variety of potential investors.

I, for one, believe that the Cosmos are a great brand, and we like the ownership group that’s taken over from Paul Kelmsley – even though I like Paul and think he’s a good guy.

If they’re able to satisfy all the things we have as ownership requirements, then I think they could be good prospects. But right now, it is very focused on a stadium, and less focused on ownership… If we get the stadium project lined up, we’ll have no problem getting an ownership group...

I believe Randalls Island is a viable possibility, but there would be a lot of work to do to make a stadium work on the island.

We’re spending time researching it, trying to figure out whether or not we can get people on and off the island, and we have not even begun to determine the path to securing land on the island. There is a wide variety of mechanisms that we would have to go through in order to get the right to put a stadium on the island.

So it would be a little premature to talk about whether it would be at Icahn Stadium or any other spot on the island.

We have not had much contact with the Wilpon family, and I respect the challenges that they have been going through. I am really pleased that they seem to be coming out on the positive end of this process, and when it is fully resolved, we’ll re-engage with them.

On expansion to markets other than New York:

We’re going to be meeting today with an ownership group from a city in Florida. I won’t go into any more detail than that…

(Orlando City of the North American Soccer League later confirmed via Twitter that they were the Florida group in question. You may remember Orlando City as a team that the Union played in a preseason exhibition game this past March.)

We still are in discussions in Las Vegas. Miami inundates my Twitter account, but there isn’t an ownership group there that we’re talking to. There is a potential ownership group in Detroit.

But I would say that this is less about pushing potential ownership groups back than it is about trying to work with many markets to see if we can get them to build the fan base and public support that allowed us to have successful expansion in places like Portland, Montréal and Vancouver.

And I actually do pick USL [and] NASL cities because that has proven to be a pretty good formula, the ascension of these teams into Major League Soccer.

On D.C. United's stadium situation:

I remain very concerned, and I am continually frustrated. This team has been an important asset for the community, [and] has delivered on everything that a pro sports team should focus on. They’ve been successful, for the most part, on the field, they’ve been engaged in the community.

They’ve been operating with minimal resources, and yet have had a major-league presence in the community. And by the way, they’ve lifted a couple of trophies – more than perhaps some other teams over the last 10 or 15 years.

So we have to aggressively figure a solution out, and that solution needs to be figured out soon. I am concerned about where this team will be in 2012. They’ve been operating this season without a new lease. They have been in discussions on a lease to try to improve their terms.

I’m shocked to say that I believe they could be paying more for their lease in RFK than any other team we have in the league, and there is no doubt in my mind that is a stadium that is sub-standard [compared] to what soccer fans are able to experience in many other markets in the United States and Canada.

We need a solution, and I’ve been pushing Kevin [Payne] and Will Chang to try to find that solution. If that means that if they can’t get a new, improved lease in D.C., they have to move to another facility in the region, I will be supportive of that, and in fact will help them do that.

And if it means they can’t find a solution in Baltimore, then we’ll have to go through a process – as we did with San Jose – to have to think about potentially moving the team...

Our challenge is, we have started and stopped a half-dozen times over the last number of years. At this point, it's very clear to me that there's some traffic jam that's taking place in [Washington] that probably rivals some of the other traffic james that take place [there]. It's been frustrating for us to not see a green light on any road whatsoever that will lead us down a path to a stadium...

Part one is not asking the mayor to give us money to build a stadium in D.C. [It] is to try to renew a lease in RFK that makes economic sense for a soccer team that is delivering great value, and employing lots and lots of people, and has been a good member of the community.

We are, as I mentioned earlier, paying more to play at RFK than we are at any other stadium than we've ever played at in the history of the league, including stadiums like the Meadowlands. And [we] have raccoons that are running around in the locker room.

On Los Angeles Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, who was named to the League's Best XI:

A guy that we believe deserves some more [national team] callups.

For the record, the full Best XI...

Goalkeeper: Kasey Keller (Seattle Sounders)
Defenders: Todd Dunivant (Los Angeles Galaxy), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy), Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake)
Midfielders: David Beckham (Los Angeles Galaxy), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Brek Shea (FC Dallas)
Forwards: Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United), Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes) 

So nobody from the Union. I wasn't too surprised, but I thought Carlos Valdés at least merited consideration.