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Well after a couple years of having a schedule that actually made sense, at least to soccer fans, of every team playing every other team in the league twice (once at home and once on the road), the league took what I consider a huge step backwards as they announced the format of the 2012 MLS season.
Now I have heard the arguments coming from MLS, that their new schedule format will allow them to save more money (no number released on current costs or potential savings) on travel, and will result in better quality of play. Which is kinda funny considering that all of the top 3 teams in MLS in 2001 played in more matches and traveled more than average teams as a result of competing in Champions League matches. I find it funny that this concern seemed to not impact the LA Galaxy who jetted halfway around the globe after their season for a couple of friendly matches, and I didn't hear the Seattle Sounders complain as they not only advanced in Champions League action but played extra matches as they won their third straight US Open Cup, those teams finished in the top two spots in MLS.
Now I understand that there is a level of complexity in scheduling matches, the number of issues that have to be dealt with are exhausting, first you have your TV partners who will want a say in what matches happen when so they can get the best possible ratings (I understand that), then you have to deal with FIFA dates (something that now involve more and more MLS players), then you have to deal with stadium issues (a shame that even at some "SSS's" that soccer isn't the top grossing events), then you have travel issues, you have teams who want matches to benefit holiday traditions (or avoid playing on particular days), and countless other issues to take into consideration.
I also now understand from what Don Garber said in LA during MLS Cup, that the league has a full time person with years of experience in scheduling, several outside consultants, and multiple computer programs that all work together to make the MLS schedule. I also understand that moving from the 34 games of 2011 to 36(with the addition of a new team) would add even more complexity, I do get that.
more thoughts after the jump:
So from the perspective of MLS it seems that the major issues that caused them to dump a balanced schedule (after they choose to adopt one) were, travel and fatigue. So instead of simply playing each other team twice (once at home and once away) and perhaps scheduling away matches as part of "road trips", something MLS has done a bit of in the past. We reject that for a system that clearly is so much simpler:
Each of the 19 MLS clubs will play 34 games, 17 at home and 17 away. All clubs will play an equal schedule within their respective conference.
Western Conference - 24 in-conference + 10 out-of-conference games:
Western Conference clubs will play each West opponent 3 times (24 games):
West clubs will play 4 conference opponents twice at home and once away
They will play the other 4 conference opponents once at home and twice away.
The home and away games will be reversed in 2013.
Western Conference clubs will play each East opponent once each (10 games):
5 of these will be at home and 5 will be away.
The East opponents each team faces at home and away will be reversed in 2013.
Eastern Conference - 25 in-conference + 9 out-of-conference games:
Eastern Conference clubs will play 25 games against other East clubs:
East teams will play 7 conference opponents three times each (21 games) and
2 conference opponents twice each (4 games).
Eastern Conference clubs will play each West opponent once each (9 games):
Some will play 4 at home and 5 away while others will play 5 at home and 4 away.
The West opponents each team faces at home and away will be reversed in 2013.
Now this is what MLS had to say about the change:
"We have established a fair and compelling format for the 2012 season," said MLS Executive Vice President Nelson Rodriguez. "This regular season will include more games between regional rivals and less total travel than we have seen in recent years. Because of the wide geographic distribution of MLS clubs, this structure should improve the quality of play, while continuing to give every club an equal chance of qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs."
So while I am not sure, I believe Nelson is telling you that MLS quality of play has gotten worse over the last few years because of travel? And that more games with regional rivals is better than a more balanced approach.
So I thought I would just look at one very basic measurement of how this new schedule could impact "the quality" of play. So in 2011 teams in the Western conference (based on playing each team in the league twice) averaged 12.44 wins, while teams from the East only averaged 9.77 wins. So now a team in the West will have 24 matches against teams that averaged 12.44 wins, and just 10 against teams that averaged 9.77 wins, while the East will have 25 matches against teams that averaged 9.77 wins and just 9 against teams that averaged 12.44 wins. Whom do you think will have an easier schedule, teams in the East or the West?
Now clearly facing opponents who average almost 4 wins fewer per year will mean that the best record in all of MLS is very likely going to be an Eastern Conference team. The ramifications of that are huge, it impacts which team wins the Supporters' Shield, could impact which team hosts the 2012 MLS Cup, impacts which teams qualify for Champions League in 2013/14. Oh I get that MLS will save a little bit of money, but the cost of the changes will mean the sport with the very simplest schedule in the US last year, now has one as complex as any sport. It means the sport that could say it had the fairest schedule in the US, now is as bad as the NFL and BCS. It means that once again MLS dug into their bag of preset answers and instead of picking out the one about respecting the traditions of the sport, they found the one that says "this is North America and we should be like the NFL".
I think they got it wrong. If the issue was the number of matches teams played, then why not just cancel MLS exhibition matches with European teams, or go back to playing matches on FIFA dates (it worked for a decade). If the issue was travel time and expenses, why not look at booking just 5 trips to the opposing conference each year and doing a Wednesday - Saturday road trip each time, or why not allow teams to use charter flights to reduce fatigue? If the issue was getting the best soccer at the end of the season, why did the two teams in MLS Cup have a combined 7-2-1 in their last 10 matches, that seems like great quality of play.
So what was the real issue that MLS felt they needed to address? Was it to cement their preference for geographic conferences vs. a single table? Was it to find a way to propel the Eastern Conference to be more competitive? Only 1 team actually from the East has won MLS Cup since 1999. Was it to save some money for the owners by reducing travel? Will a trip to Dallas or Vancouver really be cheaper than New York or Boston? Was it simply a way to put more emphasis on the playoffs and less on the regular season? Clearly the Supporters' Shield will mean less to me, with teams not playing the same or even similar schedules. In the past RSL might play one extra match with Colorado or LA, but now it will be 24 matches against teams from the West and just 10 against the East. Clearly nothing even closely resembling a fair or remotely balanced schedule.
I just think the cost of giving up on a balanced schedule (something MLS finally got to) was sacrificed too quickly and too easily by the league. That doesn't mean that they didn't have real issues to address, but I am sorry if this new way was so much easier, and so much better why a month after announcing it do I still not have a schedule for the 2012 season? Why doesn't my opposition to this new schedule seem to be diminishing? Why does it seem like the opinions of the fans didn't matter on this topic? Why am I and a lot of fans left with more questions than answers?
I am sure many of you will disagree with me, and you are entitled to, but simply ask yourself this simple question does the system above look like something that is easier? Cleaner? Better? If so please tell me why.
OFF MY SOAPBOX