It’s Departure Time Again For MLS Scheduling

Canadian author James Grossi writes for The Blizzard and at his blog, Partially Obstructed View.

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 Schedule: The perennial balancing act in MLS

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.

That's a lot of frequent flying (table courtesy GoSounders.com)

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.

And away we go...again...

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.

31 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by SoCalPete on 2011/09/26 at 10:45 PM

    A balanced schedule is not as important when you’ve got playoffs and when there’s not much as stake. Elsewhere in the world, the order of league results determines everything – the champ, the qualifiers for cup play, the relegated – so a perfectly even schedule is essential to give everyone a fair shot for these things that can mean on- and off- the field success or failure.

    If you’re going to have playoffs, then the order of teams going into the playoffs only matters for the one(s) right on the cusp of not qualifying.

    Anyways, there’s the fact that there’s very little riding on playoff performance. I have a hard time getting worked up about the playoffs because they matter so little to the teams financially, who are just different parts of the same company. What revenue that is produced in the playoffs (which can’t be very much) mostly goes to the league; there’s no prestigious and/or lucrative cup qualificaqiton on the line; there’s not even any league prize money on the line for the teams based on their performance – which (unlike promotion/relegation) is something that doesn’t threaten the league’s franchise-fee based, pay-to-play structure. So if things are a little bit uneven to teams, who cares frankly, since the outcome doesn’t really matter (even for in sports terms).

    Actually, scratch that – there is something tangible that the league gives to the best performers- crappier draft picks. Woo hoo! Now THAT’S something to play for!

    Reply

    • Posted by Gazza on 2011/09/27 at 1:20 AM

      @SocalPete

      Why post comments to a MLS article when you clearly don’t watch the league, care about the league and don’t know the first thing about MLS?

      Reply

  2. Posted by JD Cane on 2011/09/26 at 10:48 PM

    In a US-style league with an East-West playoff system and no relegation, I’d suggest that playing an unbalanced schedule does not offend any core principles of competitive sports. The NBA and MLB, for example, have adopted and abandoned balanced schedules in the past so traditional rivals can play extra games. I see the point of a balanced schedule if teams are going up or down, but if you want to sell tickets and build a fan base, just tell Whitecaps fans they’ll have more games against Portland and Seattle.

    Reply

    • Repeatedly playing the same teams may work in the short-term, to garner attention and thrill-seekers, but how long before those games become stale?

      How many Yankees-Red Sox games can one stomach in a season? Sure when there’s something on the line they’re great, but often not so much.

      Celtic-Rangers, Real Madrid-Barca, these are big games because of the weight of history and the trophy implications. Meaningless mid-season matches would get boring quick.

      What if one club – say Seattle – pushed ahead and dominated for years? Wouldn’t there be an equal chance it would turn people off?

      Reply

      • Posted by JD Cane on 2011/09/27 at 10:04 PM

        We’re not in Glasgow or Barcelona. We’re in the US, where there always will be playoffs and there probably won’t ever be relegation. It is what it is, to quote Egypt’s new manager. More than fifty years of post-TV sports history shows that unless one of the teams sucks, Yankees-Red Sox, Dodgers-Giants, Jets-Patriots and other heated rivalries pull a number and make money. In a league with 20 teams and a 40-game season, MLS might drop two or three distant games. And, if Seattle happened to dominate for years, it surely would turn some people off, and many of them would pay to watch Seattle lose, like Yankee-haters do.

        Reply

  3. Posted by Jared on 2011/09/27 at 4:39 AM

    I really like your idea of sending teams on West or East coast swings where they would play several teams in the span of a couple weeks on one coast without traveling back. That’s how MLB and NBA try to do their scheduling. As a Red Sox fan, I dread the West Coast swings that they always take where they play games for 2 or 3 weeks starting at 10 pm eastern time but at least they aren’t constantly traveling back and forth across the country.

    What if MLS divided up the conferences for real in a style similar to MLB (AL/NL) or NFL(AFC/NFC) where they are essentially two separate leagues with only a few interleague games? It’s probably too soon for that with 20 teams but if rumors are true that they will eventually go even larger that will probably end up happening.

    Reply

    • Road trips would also perhaps make traveling support work better, why take a week off to see your team play in LA once, when you can go to three in the same time span?

      A Pacific NW road trip would be epic. Mmm, beer.

      More on post-20 clubs coming soon.

      Reply

  4. Posted by chazcar2 on 2011/09/27 at 7:16 AM

    I have thought about this a bit before. Maybe even commented on it another place. My “ideal” MLS set up is this:

    28 teams in 4 groups of 7 (short term could be 4 groups of 5). You play a home and home with everyone in your group every year (12 games). You also play a home and home with one of the other three groups (14 games). This rotates every year. In a three year period you play every team in the league. This makes a total of 26 regular season games. The league takes a three week break every year in June for group stages of WC/EURO/GC/Copa America/etc. No All star game, instead MLS promotes players on National teams.

    There would be playoffs. 12 teams make it. Each division champ seeded 1-4, Then runner ups 5-8, then wild cards 9-12. Division champs get week 1 bye, while 5v12, 6v11, etc. Then 1-4 plays the winners (ex. 1vWinner(8v9)). That would be 4 weeks of playoffs.

    That makes a total season of 33 weeks, counting the three week break.

    Reasoning: 28 teams give enough coverage for the nation. Divisions cut down on travel, but rotating groups ensure teams all see each other regularly. Three week break gives teams a chance to recruit national team players from european leagues without losing them for key midseason games. 12 post season spots is still less than half the teams. 1 and 2 spots in a division making the playoffs ensures enough make the post season from every division, 4 wild cards catch everyone else that is good. Seeding by winning division and then second place make sure people want to win their division, but still rewarding best overall record.

    Tried to be quick in this post. Thoughts?

    Reply

    • Posted by EFG on 2011/09/27 at 7:54 AM

      Just based on a quick glance, my only “issue” (and it is a very minor one) is how many MLS players will be participating in EUROs or Copa America? Is it worth a 3 week break to the entire league if you can count the number of players on one hand that will be missing?

      Reply

      • Posted by chazcar2 on 2011/09/27 at 8:16 AM

        Its also a ploy to ensure MLS can recruit more of those players. Not ones playing for England, France, Italy, Spain Argentina, Brazil, etc, but instead playing for Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Belgium, Croatia, Romania, etc.

        While currently not a lot of players are in the national team picture, I think that is because the MLS teams also don’t want to lose those players during the season. Also from a player standpoint, you can easily fall off the National team picture by moving to a far away league, especially if that league isn’t on the Fifa schedule. While this wouldn’t be fully FIFA it would be closer and make FIFA happier with the MLS in general.

        Reply

        • Posted by Jared on 2011/09/27 at 9:28 AM

          Isn’t one of the main reasons MLS doesn’t have guys that play in Chile, Belgium, Croatia, Romania that are actually in the frame for national team duty is that MLS doesn’t pay as much as their national leagues? I don’t think a lot of guys are going to leave home to move to MLS for $60k a year. MLS at this point is just starting to use DP slots on those types of players instead of the big names.

          Reply

        • It wouldn’t just be a ploy for the league, but TV Networks as well. ESPN, CBS, Versus, etc. can pony up dough for the league and not worry about those summer tourneys taking away viewers. Better yet they could acquire the rights to these tourneys to promote MLS whilst showing other soccer events that MLS novices will be watching.

          Reply

      • Posted by nick on 2011/09/27 at 3:50 PM

        A break would work no matter when it is put in because MLS teams would have a spot for the euro friendlies.

        Reply

    • First I’ve heard of this system; I like it. Maintains balance within the playing pool, but flexible enough to ensure everyone sees everyone in time. Top seeds rewarded for their accomplishments.

      I’d be satisfied with this arrangement.

      Respect for the international calendar is a whole other issue. Being able to represent your nation – given the travel difficulties and lack of respect for MLS internationally – is a difficult proposition for anyone faced with the dilemma of moving to North America.

      If this burden could be eased, it could allow better players to come over, but I see prestige and finance being the more influential factors. It will be decades – if ever – before the lure of Europe can be matched by MLS, however, living conditions, stable finance, and the like are major selling points that need not be encumbered with whether or not one can still represent your country.

      Not that MLS stops players from representing, as a TFC fan, dressing a scout and a few one day contractors as most of the squad was away will long live in the memory.

      Reply

      • Posted by chazcar2 on 2011/09/27 at 12:28 PM

        I think the MLS could compete finacially with Lower European Clubs sooner than decades. MLS is doing good work establishing a base to build upon. I also think that European clubs will continue to destablize themselves with the competition over resources and market share. While I don’t think MLS will compete with La Liga/EPL/Serie A, I definately think it could seriously compete with all the other leagues. If the Euro (curriency) continues to errode vs the dollar, and the MLS continues to build to a $400-750K average salary, it will definately become more attactive.

        Also I am not envisioning a league full of these other players. The world cup last year contained 6 MLS players (4 on USMNT) out of 736 players (32*23). That’s less than 1%. If the MLS can move that to 5% that would be 37 players. Just slightly more than 1 per team in a 28 team league. If each team in my 28 team league had 5 that would be 140 players. Not all have to be on World cup squads

        One reason I would go to a MLS system of more than 20 teams is that I would not have promotion/relegation. I think that system is inheriently unstable and causes finacial hardship on clubs. I would advicate for a Minor league system. While maybe worse for pure sporting reasons I actually think it would be worlds better finacially. Without the danger of relegation clubs can plan and build long term. Also there is the potential to make more money off of reserve league games without oversaturating one market.

        Reply

        • Posted by Jared on 2011/09/27 at 12:50 PM

          What is the average salary now? I thought it was somewhere in the vicinity of $150k. That’s a long way from $400 to 750k.

          I think promotion and relegation would be less of an issue with MLS due to the salary cap. The clubs that get in trouble on relegation usually end up there because they have a bunch of players that nobody wants on very high wages.

          Reply

          • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/09/27 at 7:02 PM

            If you were looking to own a expansion MLS team, but saw it took considerable investment, would you still be as keen to do saw if there was a chance of relegation?

            We have seen how attendance deceases when a team isn’t very good, especially here in the USA.

            Reply

            • Promotion & Relegation are non-starters people cannot put their investment to such a risk. I agree that the shadow of Pro/Rel are responsible for at least some of the financial peril that embroils European and South American football – been working on a piece about that.

              In a hundred years, when the crowds are there maybe, but until reserve matches are sold out and the waiting lists are long, it’s just unfeasible.

              Not sure how I feel about the ‘minor league’ idea, though the idea of reserve matches playing a more important role does come up in the follow-up piece to this post.

  5. [...] Guardian takes a look at possible MLS scheduling issues as the travel miles pile [...]

    Reply

  6. Posted by Damon on 2011/09/27 at 8:28 AM

    I’d strongly prefer an unbalanced schedule to help foster geographic rivalries.

    Reply

    • Something about too much of a good thing… Familiarity will breed contempt, until it turns to indifference.

      Rivalries occur naturally, fostering seems artificially induced. Toronto vs. Columbus was on its way, until they forced a silly cup upon it.

      Reply

      • Posted by nick on 2011/09/27 at 4:01 PM

        Most of the cups are stupid but you can’t deny that being in a teams division paying them a lot turns them into a rival. look at any sport including soccer. Bacra’s biggest rival is with real madrid not Manu because they play a lot.

        Reply

        • Posted by Jared on 2011/09/27 at 5:47 PM

          Barca’s biggest rival is Real Madrid for soooo many more reasons than that they play a lot. They could play each other once a decade and the rivalry would be huge. It’s a socioeconomic/political rivalry that goes back decades between the region where Barca (Catalonia) is located and Madrid. Throw in a few decades of oppression under Franco with a bit of Di Stefano being stolen by Madrid during that time and you get a fierce rivalry.

          There aren’t many rivalries in any sport that matches up to that intensity due to the reasons behind the rivalry.

          Reply

          • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/09/27 at 7:21 PM

            Thank you for the sensible reply. More polite than I could have managed…

            Reply

            • Real-Barca, the Glasgow & Istanbul derbies, etc. are, as mentioned, much more than just playing regularly.

              Portland-Seattle is in that same vein, though admittedly not of the same level… one day, maybe. Toronto-Montreal will be equally as fierce.

              It’s not just playing regularly, it’s playing in important matches against each other. All the cute little cups are nice, but will never achieve more than a single playoff contest would.

              Everyone wants to accelerate these rivalries, but you can only ruin them by over doing it.

            • Posted by Jared on 2011/09/28 at 2:31 AM

              It took me several deep breaths.

            • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/09/28 at 6:20 AM

              I not sure the deep seated hatred that leads to intense rivalry that you see across the globe can be replicated here, but it is also one you probably don’t want. Seeing divisions along religious lines shouldn’t happen in 2011 but it does unfortunately.

              One rivalry that fascinates me is where you (traditionally) have one establishment / bourgeois club and the other being working class.

  7. Posted by Berniebernier on 2011/09/27 at 8:32 AM

    While the travel issue outlined above clearly needs to be resolved I would also like to see something done about the uneven amount of games teams play at various points in time. It may just be a pet peeve of mine but to have some teams having played three less games resulting in needing to look at the PPG standings to see playoff positions (since it can be a multiple spot different than the standings printed in the newspaper) is confounding. Every other league can generally keep it to teams having a single game in hand (which also ties to teams playing on even rest).

    Reply

    • I do agree at times it is pretty ridiculous, but I’d give MLS a pass on this for a few years yet. Europe has had ages to define their schedules into set patterns, over here it’s still sorting itself out.

      The opportunities for those interminable midsummer friendlies are not always ideal for MLS’ scheduling. ie. European Team A has this time-table and wishes to stop in these places on these dates and make this much money.

      Not that I approve of that motivation, but it must be considered for now.

      Adding to the confusion the Voyageur’s Cup and US Open Cup are completely out of sync. The Canadian Championship (to determine entrants to the Champions League) is played in the spring, whereas the USOC has already been completed the year before.

      We’re in the more-or-less unique position of having two national governance bodies (USSF & CSA) having to work with a third party (MLS) and a fourth (CONCACAF) to mash everything together.

      It’s going to take time.

      Reply

  8. Posted by John on 2011/10/01 at 6:53 PM

    Have a single table, even schedule. Present the top of table team with better trophy.. (current shield is kinda ugly).. Have playoffs where every contest is a home & away with aggregate. Have the final as a home & away with aggregate,. or if its a one off final,. have it at the home of the higher seeded team. End of story.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Gregorio on 2011/10/02 at 7:26 AM

    Maybe this is just a rant and should be saved for some craigslist forum but the problem seems to emanate from the single division structure of the MLS. I understand that the league was created to appeal to Amercian audiences and was initially just concerned with stability & establishing the market. But the unique characteristics of the American sport systems hinder us in the international and devlopmental forums. Much akin the MLB which is a closed market, the lack of ebb & flow of lower leagues is a major problem that will plague us for years; it breeds mediocracy & complacency. Look at the example of the Pittsburgh Pirates or insert periennal doormat team name of the NFL, or NBA. Owners and franchises can rely on attendance,TV money, and otehr revenues streams to stay afloat, make a profit and not ardously retain their right to remain in the league. and Please note the requisite easy entrance & plethora of playoff games to further increase revenue to the overall dilution of the sport. ( I remember one year 16 teams of some 21 hockey teams made the playoffs).
    Anyway I know this(my rant) is not a solution to the problem but I believe that MLS will suffer these growing pains & obstacles not faced by other established sports which have a rich history base for fans to latch onto. Other countries do not have these issues. I understand owners’ unwillingness to jepoardize thier investment millions by possibly being regulated to a lower league but the lack of competition negates hunger. And its the hungry players who make it. You can’t buy or teach heart. Since when have Americans shied from a battle?

    Reply

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