Simplifying MLS

brian ching, george john, fc dallas, houston dynamo

By Justin Shaffer - SEATTLE, WA (Feb 22, 2012) US Soccer Players -- This past Christmas, my brother’s gift to me were two tickets to the Seattle Sounders “Opening Day."  Shortly into explaining how the Sounders would open their campaign against Santos Laguna in 2012 and how the schedule was setup with the Sounders in three different competitions (MLS, CONCACAF Champions League, and the US Open Cup), my frustrated brother interrupted me, “Why does soccer have to be so confusing?”

If you don't think that's a hurdle in attracting new fans, you're wrong.  The lack of simplicity in something as basic as the schedule isn't a benefit to mainstream fans, it's an annoyance at best and a disincentive at worst.  While MLS can’t really do anything about the confusing nature of the various competitions, removing or reducing the complexity of the things they do control would go a long ways towards making the League and the sport more accessible to fans.

Unfortunately, when creating the 2012 regular season schedule, MLS continued to move away from simplicity, opting for the unbalanced schedule. When MLS commissioner Don Garber announced the changes back in November, he suggested that a balanced schedule was just too much to handle with 19 teams and three different competitions.

"It’s simple math," Garber said in his State of the League press conference announcing the changes. "389 games would almost be impossible for us to execute with the other competitions we’re required to play, the weather issues we have … the challenges in a handful of markets, the FIFA dates," he said. "All the things we have to do differently in the United States from a competitive standpoint, just the travel impact that exists in our country."

Garber later went on to suggest fans just want a balanced schedule because it’s the way the English Premier League does things, ignoring the fact that all of the top leagues in the world use a balanced schedule in one form or another.

While Garber is right about the amount of travel being unique issue for MLS, issues with the quality of play can be attributed more to MLS’s frugal salary structure and roster restrictions than calendar congestion. Four extra games a year per team is also a poor excuse to move to an unbalanced schedule, particularly when those games could be played in place of the playoff system.

There’s a sort of symbiotic relationship inherent in the structure of a league. Since the Commissioner brought it up, let’s stick with the English Premier League as an example. The EPL uses a system of relegation and promotion to provide some incentive for each team to continue playing to win (or at least not lose). As much as I like the relegation and promotion system it’s not a realistic option in North American soccer.

Instead, since it’s inception in 1996, MLS has used the playoffs as that motivation.  The League was designed for eight of ten teams to make the postseason. And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, MLS rewards failure by providing better draft picks to those teams at the bottom of the league.

Playoff systems make sense where it’s not possible for every team to play one another during the regular season, either due to the large number of teams (in the case of the World Cup, March Madness, etc.), separate leagues (Major League Baseball), or the intense physical nature of the sport (National Football League). MLS does not share any of these issues. Using a playoff system to determine a champion only serves to diminish the importance of the regular season and, worse, often means a lesser team is crowned champion.

In 2010, the Colorado Rapids finished 7th out of 16 teams in the regular season table but went onto win the MLS Cup. The 2009 MLS Cup winners, Real Salt Lake, finished in a three way tie for 8th place and only qualified for the playoffs on goal differential. However, in both cases, the League’s structure dictated that those four games mattered more than the 30 games played throughout the regular season by each team.  In fact, in the sixteen years of MLS play, only 6 times has the best teams actually been crowned MLS champion.

During his 2011 State of the League, Garber highlighted rivalries as one of the benefits for an unbalanced schedule.  He stressed their importance for drawing general interest and increasing the TV ratings. Rivalries, we believe, will help be the fuel to drive that energy and it's a big part of our strategy, so I think people will see in a week, when we lay all this out, that rivalry focus will be a big part of the format," Garber said."

Unfortunately, that wasn't what happened once the actual schedule was released.  Despite highlighting the rivalries as a benefit, the League’s schedulers did a poor job of actually applying that logic to the schedule. The Texas Derby between Dallas and Houston goes from two games a year to a single game. Dallas’s  place in the Western Conference also means that their Brimstone Cup rivalry with Chicago is reduced to a single game each year. North of the border, Vancouver gets only one game against each of its Canadian rivals, Montreal and Toronto.

The Atlantic Cup (NYRB vs DCU), California Clasico (LA vs San Jose), Heritage Cup (Sounders vs San Jose), SuperClasico (Chivas USA vs LA), Pioneer Cup (Columbus vs Dallas), Rocky Mountain Cup (RSL vs Colorado), and the Trillium Cup (Columbus vs Toronto) all have three games each resulting, however, in a distinct home-field advantage for one club due to the odd number of games.

And in the one rivalry where MLS could’ve restored some order of balance, they failed again. The Cascadia Cup features three teams from the Western Conference, which means 3 games between each team. Instead of scheduling each team to get three home games and three away games, this year Portland gets both Vancouver and Seattle at home twice, while Vancouver gets Seattle at home once, and the Sounders get on each team at home once.

MLS has a habit of crowning every game as the next big moment, yet they continue to undercut the importance of following the League game-by-game while frustrating their existing fans.  Instead of setting itself apart in the American sports landscape by creating a unique brand of simplicity, transparency, and accessibility, this League opts for complications.

Justin Shaffer joins USSoccerPlayers after regularly contributing to the site's comments section.  Look for his byline every other week.

13 Responses to Simplifying MLS

  1. Trey says:

    Hear hear. I would also say that there doesn’t need to be a trophy for every rivalry. This isn’t college football.

  2. Puxa Sporting says:

    “Playoff systems….a lesser team is crowned champion.”

    These ad nauseam attacks by writers upon the playoff system omit on glaring fact: in the United States, sports have playoffs.

  3. Justin Shaffer says:

    Trey,
    I don’t mind the minor trophies. A lot of leagues around the world do that and the rivalry trophies are most often handled by the respective teams’ supporters groups. For example, the Cascadia Cup is handled by the supporters groups of the Sounders, Whitecaps, and Timbers. With the unbalanced schedules this year, those three groups determined together how to address the awarding of the trophy given Portland getting four home games. link to sounderatheart.com

    Besides, if the league does ever decide to get rid of the playoff system, the minor trophies give teams additional things to play for and fans additional reasons to tune in.

  4. Puxa Sporting,
    Yes, many sports throughout the US have playoffs. But just because many sports do things one way doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do them.

    The NBA, for example, has a playoff system that can last up to two months (depending on how many series go the full length).

    The NFL and NCAA Basketball require playoff systems because it’s not feasible for every team to play one another. In the NFL, that’s due to the physical demands of the game. In NCAA, it’s due to the sheer number of teams (over 200 NCAA Division 1 schools).

    NCAA Football’s top level uses a bowl system, though there’s a push for a playoff system and the lower divisions do use one. The same issues apply here as they do with NCAA Basketball (though with just over 100 teams instead of the 200 that basketball has).

    But the point above is that MLS has a simple way to determine a champion using a balanced schedule. There’s a great deal more value in what the Supporters Shield winners accomplished in a season than who ever happens to win the dice roll that is the playoffs.

    One other thing that I should mention is that the US already has another playoff system, the US Open Cup that I think could benefit from getting rid of the MLS playoff system. Use the standings in MLS to determine qualification and seeding for the USOC. The articles can only be so long, so it’s not mentioned above, but I think it would be a win-win for the league, MLS, and the lower divisions to promote the USOC and have it be like the March Madness of professional soccer in the US. A 64-team knockout tournament. Perhaps I’ll do a future article fleshing out the idea a bit more.

  5. Nathan says:

    It all depends on the level of interest sir. Many of the gentlemen in my office hotly debate something called the BCS. To my ears, it sounds willfully complicated and each year I devote zero minutes to understanding it. I do not care about college football, so there is no reason to try. My primary area of interest is modern art, and the past 25 years have taught me that most often something simply resonates with someone or it does not. The end. One person can look at a Mark Rothko painting and cry while the person next to them makes a dismissive comment. My point, and I do have one, is that if a person takes a genuine interest in soccer, they will be able to work out the not very complicated scheduling peculiarities. A genuine interest is not going to be snuffed out because the sport does not follow the traditional US format. How many people in the United States consider themselves Manchester United supporters? Did that interest die the year Man U competed in the EPL, Carling Cup, FA Cup, Champions League, and Club World Cup? Altering the schedule in an attempt to woo the mainstream sports fan is a road to nowhere. And I really do not believe there are people out there would skip supporting the local MLS side because of an unbalanced schedule.

  6. Jeremy says:

    I agree with Nathan. It’s not that complex. It’s good that your club has something that it can win other than just the league championship. Makes it more interesting and gives each team something to shoot for no matter where they are in the standings.

  7. patrick starr says:

    except college football

  8. Nathan,
    As you correctly pointed out, if someone tries it and doesn’t like it, well then there’s not going to be a lot that can be done and we shouldn’t be altering the game with them in mind. My point is that MLS is competing for attention with other American sports as well as European soccer teams and making things more complicated doesn’t help MLS retain or draw fans. MLS used a balanced schedule last year and has just changed to unbalanced schedule. Thus, I was actually arguing against the change.

    I don’t necessarily agree on your point that if someone likes soccer, they’ll make the effort to figure out the complicated bits. I enjoy soccer a great deal, but a few looks at how the Mexican league and some of the South American leagues are setup was enough for me to decide I’d stick with the EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga, etc.

  9. Nathan says:

    Fair enough. I do realize you were arguing against the change; my point was simply that I do not believe it matters much, if at all. I honestly do not believe that it is complicated. If I want examples of confusing competitions bordering on hilarity, I look to Scotland and Belgium. If I supported a team in either country, I would figure it out and go with it. Balanced or unbalanced, I simply look and see who is next on the fixture list and plan accordingly.

    And we will have to agree to disagree on your last point. If you were a Club America fan, the odd way the league operates would not send you away.

  10. Edward says:

    Some Argentine fans would disagree with that, Nathan. There’s been a heavy push against the two season a year setup there in part by fans who think it’s just a way to prop up the big clubs. Meanwhile, some big club fans question what those titles really mean.

  11. nathan3e says:

    Well, I cannot disagree with that. It is a way to prop up the big clubs. Good luck to them getting any big changes past Boca and River.

  12. Zach says:

    One thing to consider is that MLS is still in its infancy, it’s still expanding. Team #19 is entering the league this year, and #20 should be in the next few years. Don Garber has said several times that MLS is going to stop at 20 teams. That will go a long way in helping to balance the schedule in several ways:

    1) Teams won’t need to be moved the West to the East, and then back again.
    2) If two rival teams play 3 times during the year, one year Team A will have 2 home games, and the next year Team B will have 2 home games.
    3) Most teams should be in their own stadiums within the next few years, which will help avoid scheduling conflicts with teams that share stadiums with other sports teams, like the Revs. Until MLS stops expanding, and all teams are in their own stadiums, I’m afraid that an unbalanced, simple schedule can NOT be avoided.

    Also, anyone that dismisses the amount of travel that teams in MLS do as inconsequential (not to mention those teams involved in CONCACAF Champions League) are deluding themselves. When RSL made their run to the final in CCL, they traveled over 25,000 miles in less than a month. All the players commented on how much of a toll it took on them. Teams in Europe that play in Europa league or the Champions League don’t even have to travel this much.

    I agree that the Commissioner has made some pretty weird decisions in the past (especially regarding the playoff format, just stupid), but I think that he is trying to make decisions that are going to benefit MLS over the next several decades, and not just the immediate future.

    That’s my $0.02…

  13. jake says:

    Well… except college football of course.