With the Union’s season now over, it’s time for us to start looking towards next year. Yes, the playoffs are still going on, but rumors are flying of a change to Major League Soccer’s schedule for 2012 that could have an enormous impact on the Union and its fans.
Peter Schaad, the Vancouver Whitecaps’ radio play-by-play voice and talk show host, has been reporting for a few days now that MLS is considering moving to an unbalanced schedule next year.
Instead of playing each team home and away, the Union would play more matches against teams in the Eastern Conference and fewer against the West.
The MLS Cup Playoffs would also be changed, splitting the bracket clearly by conference instead of by overall seed.
Schaad explains the scenarios rumored to be in the works on the November 1 edition of his radio show, which you can listen to here.
The changes in next year’s competition structure have been floated for two reasons. The first is teams’ complaints about travel costs, especially going to and from the Pacific Northwest.
As Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson recently stated in a Q&A conducted on Facebook:
Balanced schedule is great in theory. But how many balanced schedule leagues cover a geographic territory as big as ours? Travel is a huge unique issue for MLS and it doesn’t get talked about enough.
travel for us is a killer. especially for portland timbers. we are as disadvantaged there as any team in mls ... more miles traveled per trip with our required connections.
The potential changes for next year are also partially a result of this year’s playoff seedings. Even though the conference semifinals produced multiple compelling matchups - and even though the conference finals are reasonably chalky - there is a consensus that the bracket wasn’t entirely fair.
In particular, the Western Conference semifinal between Seattle and Real Salt Lake seemed to be a punishment for both clubs instead of a reward. The Sounders and RSL finished the regular season with the second- and third-best overall records in MLS, respectively, but they were forced to face each other at the first possible hurdle.
If the playoffs were to be restructured without unbalancing the schedule, it would clearly render the regular season unfair if the season unfolded the way this year’s did. An unbalanced schedule would make a truly conference-based playoff system more fair.
On top of all these elements, there is an added bonus: more rivalry games between Philadelphia and New York, Seattle and Portland, and so forth.
That part sounds pretty good, right? Especially with a new television partner coming on board next year in NBC Sports, having more rivalry games would allow for both them and ESPN to broadcast their share.
But the supposed gain from that would come at a tremendous cost to MLS and fans across North America. I suspect the soccer-savvy among you have already seen right through the idea, and know the downsides of it.
This is a situation where it’s worth speaking up when given the opportunity. With the Union's season over, I have a bit of time. So allow me to get on my soapbox for a few minutes.
There are three significant reasons why going to an unbalanced schedule is a bad idea.
1. A balanced schedule exposes every bad market in MLS to every good market in MLS.
Let’s face it: there is a big difference between the atmosphere in Dallas and the atmosphere in Portland. Whereas the Seattle Times sends its beat writer to almost every road game on the continent, the Chicago Tribune - one of the nation’s great newspapers - doesn’t even employ a full-time soccer writer.
Even though the Union routinely sell out PPL Park, I don’t think I have to tell you all how much of a struggle it is for soccer to get covered in the local media here in Philadelphia.
But when David Beckham or Thierry Henry come to town, things change. All of a sudden, a columnist shows up (and sometimes a few do).
If you take away the balanced schedule, the first thing you lose is getting Beckham and Henry into every market in the league. You might not like either player, or the teams they play for. But trust me when I tell you they make a serious impact on people who shape messages through the media.
And what about power brokers of other stripes? The growth of soccer-specific stadiums across the country has put even more pressure on teams that don’t have them - specifically New England, San Jose and D.C. United - to improve their situations.
2. Every fan in MLS should have the opportunity to travel to every venue in the league every year if he or she wants to.
The culture of traveling support in soccer isn’t as unique among sports as it used to be. But even though Phillies fans travel to Pittsburgh and Washington by the thousands, it’s still not quite the same as an organized traveling section of 1,200 Union fans at Red Bull Arena.
Even the few dozen Sons of Ben who traveled to Seattle for the Union’s first ever MLS game last year knew they were part of something special. And if you didn’t go last year, or this year, wouldn’t it be nice to know you’ll be able to next year or the year after?
I’ve spoken to many Union fans this year who want to see for themselves what the soccer culture in the Pacific Northwest is really about, but haven’t been able to make it out there yet.
I admit that this argument is much more sentimental than economic, but there is an economic argument to be made for it. Thanks to social networking and other media, there is a growing rivalry between the fans in Seattle and Philadelphia. And as we’ve seen in this year’s playoffs, there are real sparks starting to fly between New York and Los Angeles.
Reducing the number of matchups between those markets from two to one also reduces the buzz that those matchups can create.
Yes, a balanced schedule increases travel costs for the teams involved; and yes, it annoys players from other countries who aren’t used to spending lots of time on airplanes. But it would be a good gesture from MLS to continue to allow its fans to support their team no matter where they play.
3. Increasing the number of rivalry games decreases the value of each one.
This is the point that I think might resonate most at Major League Soccer headquarters. Don Garber, the league’s commissioner, spent 16 years working for the National Football League in various capacities. So he knows as well as anyone else the importance of keeping rivalry games scarce.
The Cowboys only come to Philadelphia once a year. Same with the Steelers and Ravens or the Packers and Bears. Everyone circles the dates of those big games months in advance. And once those game days come, the buzz is palpable whether you care about the NFL or not.
I saw it first-hand in Portland when I covered the Timbers-Sounders game there back in July. Fans were lined up outside Jeld-Wen Field at 7 a.m. to get prime seats in the Timbers Army supporters’ sections.
And I saw it again more recently, when Union fans started talking about their travel plans for the game at Red Bull Arena weeks in advance. No matter that it was on a Thursday night and many people had work the next morning.
So that’s my case for a balanced schedule. Now, what can be done about fixing the playoffs?
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a certain degree to which this year’s playoffs worked out the way they were supposed to. The Eastern Conference final has the top two seeds, and the Western Conference final has the first and third seeds.
But it’s also perfectly fair to say that the playoffs were flawed in the first place, because of how teams were seeded at the start.
The four best teams in the Western Conference - Los Angeles, Seattle, Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas - all amassed more points in the regular season than Kansas City, which finished atop the Eastern Conference. The fifth-best team in the West, Colorado, would have finished second in the East.
If you unbalance the schedule and fully separate conferences in the playoffs, you fix some of that. But it’s still unfair if one conference is far superior to the other - and it’s a fair bet that the West will be better than the East again next year.
I’ve covered MLS for almost a decade now, and I’ve seen the league wrestle with its playoff format more times than I can count. After watching how this season has unfolded, with all of its twists and turns, I’ve changed my mind on two subjects I never thought I’d come to think this way about.
I’m ready for a single table, and I’m ready for the MLS Cup Final to not be at a neutral site anymore.
A single table is by far the best way to accommodate a balanced schedule. Soccer fans in this country are smart enough to know how the standings would work, and it would put the right teams in the playoffs in the right order.
Hosting the MLS Cup Final at the home of the Supporters’ Shield winner has some serious logistical consequences, primarily regarding stadium availability. MLS would have to be able to ensure that all of its venues - especially the NFL stadiums in Seattle and New England - would be available if needed.
There would also be the possibility that the final would be played at a less-than-ideal site, such as San Jose’s 10,300-seat Buck Shaw Stadium. Fans could be inconvenienced by not knowing the site of the final far in advance, and some of the ancillary activities (such as the Supporters’ Summit) might not be possible anymore.
But there’s a straightforward way to remove some of the uncertainty around who would host the game: award it to the Supporters’ Shield winner. And as an even bigger bonus, qualify that team to the final automatically.
Schaad proposes that nine teams qualify for the playoffs. The Supporters’ Shield winner hosts the final and the next eight teams are seeded in a knockout competition that is conducted over a Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday span.
I think I have an even better way to do it: reward the higher seeds with byes in the playoffs. The fifth and fourth seeds get single byes, and the third and second seeds get double byes.
This draws in part from Women’s Professional Soccer and in part from the Big East’s basketball tournament, which use multiple byes in their postseason tournaments.
(Coincidentally, both leagues are under threat of going out of existence. But that’s for another discussion.)
If we were to set up the bracket with this year’s teams, it would look like this:
9. Columbus Crew at 6. Colorado Rapids
Winner plays at 4. FC Dallas; subsequent winner plays at 3. Real Salt Lake
8. Philadelphia at 7. Houston Dynamo
Winner plays at 5. Sporting Kansas City; subsequent winner plays at 2. Seattle Sounders
Overall winner plays at 1. Los Angeles Galaxy
This format has two advantages. In addition to properly seeding the teams involved, it guarantees the top seven teams one home game each on a certain date. The set dates would help teams orient all of their sales efforts towards one date instead of multiple dates.
That logic is why Women’s Professional Soccer adopted the format. MLS is in better economic health, so it can afford a little bit more uncertainty, but I guarantee you that PR staffs across the league would like being able to focus on marketing just one playoff game on a date known well in advance.
The first three rounds would be played across a Saturday/Sunday, a Wednesday/Thursday and the subsequent Saturday/Sunday. The final would be the following weekend.
Yes, that would give the Supporters’ Shield winners a lot of time off between games, but I suspect that team wouldn’t mind too much after a long season.
Schaad envisions a Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday format, without a long break between the semifinals and final. I think it would probably be better for the league, and for fans, to have more games on weekends if possible.
According to Brian Straus of the Sporting News, MLS’ competition committee met on Wednesdayin Kansas City to discuss proposed changes to next year’s schedule format. That committee will soon make recommendations to the wider group of league owners.
I suspect, as many people around MLS do, that the decision has already been made to have an unbalanced schedule next year. So all the words I’ve put down in this blog post probably won’t count for anything.
But this is an issue that I care about, and I know that many of you do too. So I thank you for allowing me the time to put my thoughts down, as you have done all season.
Do you think the MLS schedule should be balanced or unbalanced? What changes would you make to the playoff structure? Post your thoughts in the comments. There’s a lot for us to talk about.