MLS' regular season and playoff schedule (cont.)
MLS has a couple other significant structural issues. One, its season doesn't last long enough. As U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has noted recently, not getting enough games is a disadvantage for U.S. national team players in MLS compared to players in European leagues. Last season, for example, Mexico's Javier Hernández made 44 appearances in competitive games for Manchester United over a season lasting nine months and two weeks. In MLS, Brek Shea made 30 appearances in competitive games for Dallas over a 2010 season that lasted eight months (a full six weeks shorter than Hernández's season).
|Current MLS Playoff Picture|
Simply put, MLS' season needs to last longer and have more games.
Two, North America is too big and the travel distances are too long for teams to be at their best playing two games a week in a balanced league schedule (one game home and away against every other team in the league). If you ask any European star who has joined MLS, they'll tell you one of their biggest adjustments is the extended travel in the league. And you'd better believe the travel has an impact. It's no coincidence that this season MLS road teams traveling three time zones for a game have a winning percentage of .362, below the league road percentage of .389. (If you take D.C. United's surprising 3-0-1 record as a cross-country road team out of the equation, the difference is a lot bigger.)
So how do you a structure a regular-season schedule for MLS that addresses those two issues -- travel distance and number of games? I've come up with a plan for an MLS that has 20 teams. Yes, there will be an imbalanced 19 teams with Montreal coming online next year, but MLS is hoping to add a 20th team in New York in 2013 or '14, and the league may well stay at 20 for a while. If that's the case, here's how I would set up a 20-team league:
New York Red Bulls
New York Expansion
Each team would play a 39-game regular-season league schedule (up from the current 34) comprised of:
one game against each team from the other conference (10 total)
two games (one home, one away) against each team from its own conference outside its own geographic "rivalry group" (10 total)
four games (two home, two away) against each team from its own geographic "rivalry group" (16 total)
three neutral-site games against teams from outside its own geographic "rivalry group" (3 total)
This setup would increase the number of games and the length of the MLS season to more closely match those of a European league season. It would foster the regional rivalries that Lamar Hunt argued would be so important in MLS (just as they were in the NFL). It would cut down travel distances to a more reasonable level. And it would allow fans to travel to their teams' away games much more frequently.
What are the neutral-site games, you ask? They're a great way to stage league games in February in Sun Belt markets that want to show they deserve future MLS teams (Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix/Tucson, San Diego, Charlotte, Las Vegas). Each MLS team would be drawn randomly into a four-team group with one team from each of the other geographic "rivalry groups." How many fans would travel to see a February league doubleheader on a Saturday night in Vegas? More than a few, I'd think. Plus, the warm-weather locales would keep cold cities like Chicago, New England, Toronto and Montreal from having to host games in February.
Under this plan, the full MLS season would start in February with the playoffs ending at the end of November -- a campaign lasting nine months and two weeks, the same as most European league seasons. Granted, MLS teams that miss the playoffs would only play for eight months, but that's a month more than the current seven.
Here's a comparison that takes into account the league season, Champions Leagues and knockout tournaments that might be useful:
CURRENT MLS (18 TEAMS)
Maximum: 59 competitive games over 8 months
Minimum: 35 competitive games over 7 months
MY PLAN FOR MLS (20 TEAMS)
Maximum: 66 competitive games over 9 months and 2 weeks
Minimum: 40 competitive games over 8 months
ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
Maximum: 68 competitive games over 9 months and 2 weeks
Minimum: 40 competitive games over 9 months and 1 week
Keep in mind that the maximum number of games in a year will probably never be reached. (Seattle currently has the highest potential number of competitive games for any MLS team in 2011 at 51.)
Teams should also be allowed to increase their roster sizes a bit more to accommodate a few more games, but wear and tear due to long travel will be less. Standings will continue to be kept on a conference basis.
(And then there's the possibility of shifting to the international calendar, in which the MLS Cup final could be played on Memorial Day weekend every year. But that's a topic for another column.)
It's a good idea, MLS owners. Think about it the next time you plan the league's future.