As MLS grows towards its twentieth club in the coming years there is a risk of losing the balanced schedule. Comments by Commissioner Don Garber intimated that perhaps such a pure form would have to be set aside in order to accommodate the expanded league.
The balanced schedule is perhaps the core principle of a competitive sport.
A quick look at other North American sports and the disparity that plagues divisions is at times laughable – currently in MLB three of the top four sides contesting the American League Wild Card race are from the AL East, the only division with more than two sides current playing winning baseball (they have four). This sort of inequality can virtually kill a market; in Toronto, Blue Jays fans are well aware at the start of every season that progression is essentially impossible, thus rendering the season pointless, decreasing ticket sales, ensuring the endless downward spiral of the organization.
Any club placed in a division with say New York or Los Angeles would automatically have a decreased chance of a successful season. The balanced schedule reinforces the parity of the league by spreading out the powerbases, not allowing strong teams to pick on the weaker one repeatedly to maximize their points haul.
Whether parity is to be encouraged or avoided is another debate, but even in the most uneven leagues – Spain, Scotland (at least until the split) and England – they have maintained the balanced schedule as the right way to run a league. Of course one could argue that the single-table most-points-wins form of championship is different from the playoff route, but to ruin one in the name of the other would be silly.
The playoff structure is flawed. In a perfect league, there would be no East-West crossover whatsoever, regardless of power-balance, perhaps there would be no conferences at all with the best eight or ten moving on to the postseason, perhaps no postseason at all would be best. But to recreate the league to emphasize the playoffs by distorting the positioning in that league which creates the playoff standings is backward logic.
The suggestion of regional divisions is a valid hypothesis as well, but the abandonment of the balanced schedule in the near future, due largely to travel requirements is premature.
The central problem to an expanded fixture list in the massive amount of travel that occurs in North American leagues; crossing time zones simply does not occur in league play for most European nations. The long journeys have proven challenging obstacles, as very few teams have managed positive results when crisscrossing the continent. (Table at left provided by GoSounders.com)
There are a number of systemic inefficiencies that plague the schedule, which with some long hours of calculation and consideration could easily be corrected. The prime obstacle to schedule-makers in the past has been that most teams were tenants at another’s home, thus requiring accommodation of a host of other dates.
Perhaps the change in this limitation has been overlooked in the efforts to design the schedule as almost every side now has or will soon have control of their own venues.
What if a rule was put in place to engineer the schedule such that any cross-conference trip could only occur on a weekend following a clear midweek schedule after a home match? Meaning that a club would play a match at home, have a full week off to travel, train, rest before an excursion across the continent. Too often there have been distant road trips just to return directly home for a match two or three days later.
The trips could be structured such that it was a two- or three-match road swing, travelling midweek after a day or two of rest, arriving in say Los Angeles, playing both the Galaxy and Chivas, possibly even San Jose, before returning home thus limiting the number of excursions. Trips to Toronto should include a stop in Montreal and Columbus; New York, New England and DC should be paired, etcetera. It would not function perfectly, but could decrease the number of long trips.
In order to ensure fairness it could be alternated which side plays host to the travelers first to avoid a tiredness imbalance. Also since the hosts are in the same conference having the matches grouped would ensure – at least in terms of player fitness and acquisitions – that conference rivals would face a similar test, preventing a distortion of conference standings by outside factors. Too often the team one plays in April is much different from the team one meets in September.
If possible these cross-conference matches should be played early in the season so that when the playoff race comes around a club would have more matches against their direct rivals – thus strengthening the rivalries between regional clubs as the matches have more potential to matter. With less travel come the crunch time of the season it could lessen the summer lag that appears to grip clubs as the grind takes hold.
It could potentially also allow the league to start a few weeks earlier if all the northern teams travelled to their southern most rivals, or given that the West Coast has more mild weather than the East , the eastern teams could head west.
In league play Toronto FC made ten trips to their furthest rivals (Pacific Northwest, Southern California, Texas, and Mountain Time Zone). Each time rather than play multiple matches they simply returned back east to play either at home (eight times) or away (twice). On five occasions these long journeys were either the first match of a two-in-four-day stretch (three), the second (once) or sandwiched between two other matches for a three-in-a-week (once). That is without considering Canadian Championship (US Open Cup) and CONCACAF Champions League matches.
If matches against teams in these regions were to be grouped then those ten flights (and return flights) could have been reduced by more than half (four trips) assuming three matches in SoCal and the Pacific NW and two in each of Texas and the Mountain Zone. Freeing up additional training and rest time, as well as cushioning the blow felt by the long treks necessary in regional competition.
While the increasing number of participants in the league will cause a challenge to MLS as the nineteenth and twentieth teams arrive, it is premature to abandon the balanced schedule. That challenge should be passed on the schedule-makers to ensure a more organized and thoughtful fixture list.