Posted October 14, 2013

MLS schedule switch could create as many problems as it solves

MLS, MLS Cup
LA Galaxy, MLS Cup 2012

The Los Angeles Galaxy captured last season’s MLS Cup on December 1, 2012 — the latest an MLS Cup final has ever been held. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Few subjects register on American soccer’s Richter scale quite like some old-fashioned speculation about the MLS competition format. And it is old-fashioned.

Since the league kicked off in 1996, boilerplate arguments concerning promotion and relegation, a switch to the “European” fall-to-spring calendar and the merits the MLS Cup playoffs have come up time and again. Not much changes, but the subjects continue to captivate.

That may be because of a popular, deep-seated belief that something other than time, investment, hard work and patience is required to lift MLS to the next level. It assumes that the significant cultural evolution already underway — compare soccer’s place on the American sporting landscape now to 25 years ago — might be hastened by a cosmetic adjustment to the MLS standings or schedule. As if crowning a champion in June or eliminating conferences might magically erase one of the decades by which we measure the advantage enjoyed by pro football, baseball and basketball.

On Monday morning, New York’s Daily News rekindled the wildfire when it reported that MLS was “inching closer” to shifting to a fall-to-spring season. It claimed the switch could happen in 2014 — a World Cup year — and that conversations about an overhaul “have intensified in recent weeks.”

Cue the Twitter meltdown.

MLS executive VP Dan Courtemanche took to his own account and called for calm, reminding fans that the league “has reviewed many possible schedule formats throughout the years.” He wrote that MLS recently conducted a fan survey – one of several it administers each season – on the schedule, but that no significant alterations were planned for 2014. If that’s “inching closer”, then the Daily News was correct. But for now, a comprehensive realignment isn’t in the cards.

The league does keep its options open, as it should. For example, In late 2010 MLS investigated moving to the European calendar. There were three arguments for a switch:

  1. Its teams could take full advantage of the summer transfer window, when foreign clubs do the vast majority of their business.
  2. The MLS Cup playoffs wouldn’t be overshadowed by the NFL, college football and the climax of the MLB season.
  3. It might impress FIFA voters preparing to select the site of the 2022 World Cup.

At that time, a league source suggested that MLS was looking at kicking off its regular season in mid-August, breaking from mid-December through mid-February, and then staging the title game in early June. In non-World Cup years, the ensuing two months could be used for exhibitions and tours. Here’s how that would look compared to MLS’ 2010 timetable:

Comparing how MLS' proposed revisions from 2010 compare to its current schedule.

Comparing how MLS’ proposed revisions from 2010 compared to its 2010 season schedule.

A transition season lasting a year-and-a-half, similar to the one Russia staged in 2011-12, likely would be required (a similar plan would make a 2014 switch impossible).

Then FIFA chose Qatar as the site of the 2022 World Cup, invalidating reason number three listed above. MLS’ plans to study the feasibility of a shift more closely were shelved. And that’s no surprise — a fall to spring schedule would present its own array of challenges.

A good chunk of the U.S. and Canada experiences weather that would render regular season games in early December and late February rather miserable. MLS clubs would be giving up dates in the summer, when most compete only with baseball and when families might be more likely to buy tickets. A two-month winter break would cut short the season’s momentum and any budding storylines. The MLS Cup playoffs might be overshadowed by the NFL and MLB in the fall, but they’ll likely be overshadowed by the NHL and NBA in the spring.

The North American sports calendar is always congested, and soccer hasn’t reached the point where it can command consistent headlines, no matter the time of year. MLS is in its 18th season. The NBA, the youngest of the four largest U.S./Canadian circuits, is in its 68th.

MLS continues to discuss changes large and small and to solicit feedback from fans and stakeholders. It is in no rush, however, to feed the format frenzy. A fall-to-spring schedule, promotion/relegation and an end to the playoffs will remain distracting debate, and not much more, for the foreseeable future.

18 comments
MarkWalker
MarkWalker

Current format schedule, I'm a season ticket holder with seats for the whole family. Proposed new schedule, I'M OUT! I'll buy the occasional set of tickets for the big games, that's it. In Seattle, 2/3 of the stands are filled with casual fans that pretend to be serious, including me. Half of those will spend their money elsewhere. 

206_Represent
206_Represent

Getting on the international calendar doesn't matter. MLS doesn't have the money to sign a bunch of European stars in the summer transfer window, and won't have that money any time soon.

A move to the international calendar would mean trading two months of great weather (for the vast majority of MLS fans) for two months of dreadful weather. You die-hards who want year-round soccer are already all-in. You'll go to games even if people are throwing bags of urine on you. But in order to grow soccer in North America, we need to attract the uncommitted fans. The ones who might enjoy a nice day in July but won't come out in snow and 30-mph wind in February.

Cite all of the anecdotal exceptions you want -- the unbearable summer heat in Texas, or in the Southeast, where THERE ARE NO MLS TEAMS TODAY, or the USMNT snow game in Colorado, or whatever. But for the vast majority of current fans AND the non-fans we want to attract, the European calendar is a big fat loser.

muser
muser

Perhaps the two month break can be used to publish stories in the media about players who might be gay. More gays will solve everything........

AaronOjeda
AaronOjeda

MLS.....Don't do it, no need to satisfy the Eurosnobs...MLS is growing leaps and bounds, Euro Leagues are looking at the way things are being done HERE to try to implement them THERE...The schedule is fine the way it is. Concentrate on growing ratings, getting better skilled players, growing a 2nd division, homegrown players, Soccer specific Stadiums in all venues and a team in Miami!!!..(had to get that in)

RichLGerhold
RichLGerhold

This would quite possibly be the stupidest thing the MLS has done since it's inception.

ReyPygsterio
ReyPygsterio

Two-month break in the middle of the season is a big mistake. What professional sports league that does that can be taken seriously? MLS already got it right with the schedule. We need to quit letting FIFA influence us.

PhillyBeach93
PhillyBeach93

Okay, to the guy that talked about "games in January", you realize there wouldn't be games in January/February under this new proposal, right...? And leagues around the world have moved games around for weather problems plenty of times.

For me it all comes down to two things: VALIDATION and CASHING IN ON THE SOCCER BOOM. Will MLS sit idly while Foreign League X cuts another set of fans away from the domestic game, or will they make a bold move (I do agree, 2014 is a TERRIBLE idea) to bring some kind of talent over here? The point is that MLS loses players in the middle of the summer (transfer season!) and the MLS cup postseason is played in crap weather (unless L.A. makes it again). Would I want my league's most IMPORTANT games going up against the NFL and the SEC TITLE GAME like the MLS cup did last year? Who's bright idea was it to put games on NFL SUNDAY???? COME ON PEOPLE!

That is why I am not opposed to a schedule change. And for the ninth time, BREAKS BREAKS and BREAKS in winter.

cbarlow
cbarlow

Create two division, thus enabling promotion and relegation.  However, unlike other countries, the turnover will be great.  Make sure the second division is small, so that half of the team will be promoted.  Meanwhile split the first division into East and West.  The MLS Cup qualifying system same as usual, but there will be games play for the bottom half of the two first division teams.  Losers get relegated.
This means almost every team with the exception of those finishing 5th and 6th in all division has something to play for.  Also the draft choices are given first to the second division (including the newly relegated).
I want this to happen so that instead of having multiple teams in a single City (LA, NY), we can have the traditional small market power such as Rochester, Richmond and Charleston in the mix.  Their home town may be small, but they can represent a large demographic (in Rochester, they can play half of their home games in Buffalo).    The worse case scenario is that these traditional small town powers will be forever stuck at the bottom of the second division, which to most of their own fans is not that bad; meanwhile for the big market team they know that their chance of immediate promotion is almost guarantee.  Finally, if a small town team DID make it to the first division, it will be a marketing coup.  Green Bay, Oklahoma City, are all great successes.

There really is no need for Chivas to exist, nor a second NY club when the first one has so many problems getting fans and have logistic problems.  Give Miami a try.  Give Edmonton a try.

I can imagine a 16 team fist division divided into east and west, and then a 8 team second division.  Top four of teach first division will go for the MLS Cup.  Bottom two of each division will be relegated.  Top three of second division will be promoted.  Fourth and Fifth place will have a playoff for the remaining promotion spot.

So only the 5th and 6th team of the two first division will have nothing to do; as does the last three teams of the second division.  When 17 of the 24 teams have something at stake, then every match is important.

Its a nice fantasy...a combination of a franchise system and a promotion/relegation system. 

positivewins
positivewins

A Fall-Spring schedule for MLS would be a horrible mistake.  The League is having attendance problems enough in its major markets as it is.  How many New Yorkers, New Englanders, Chicagoans, etc are going to attend a series of games held in December, January and February?  Wtih overall attendance falling this season, the last thing MLS needs is another excuse for fans in major markets to stay home.

usamnt
usamnt

@206_Represent Then again, you're also trading questionable to poor weather for the last 4 weeks of your season when MLS really will be pushing for attendance for 4-6 weeks of amazing weather EVERYWHERE as you wrap up in May. I'm not saying it should happen anytime soon - I just think the reason to do it or not to do it - should have little to nothing to do with weather. It's a poor reason NOT to do something - if it makes perfect sense in all other areas.

M20
M20

@ReyPygsterio I'm pretty sure the Bundesliga is taken fairly seriously...

cbarlow
cbarlow

Need to edit some typing mistakes.  Two divisions.  First division have East and West Conferences.  Top four of each Conferences go for the MLS cup.  5th and 6th teams of each Conferences have nothing to do.  8th place team of each Conference automatically relegated.  7th place team of each Conference get into a playoff against a promoting second division team.
Second division.  8 teams.  Top two automatically get promoted.  third to six get into promotion playoff to determine which two will face the two 7th place first division teams.  7th and 8th team of the second division do nothing but to get first shots at draft picks.
Revenue sharing keep small market teams afloat and also create possible Cinderella scenarios.   Also small market teams actually represent an entire region, not just the town.  Rochester represents upstate New York, Charleston represents the Carolinas.  Richmond represents the state of Virginia.  Edmonton represents the state of Alberta.  It also makes all four Canadian teams equal in the MLS system so that unlike right now FC Edmonton is always the punching bag for the four team Canadian Championship tournament.  Whoever draws

Edmonton basically can book themselves into the finals.

usamnt
usamnt

@positivewins Sat through the Snow Game with rabid fans in Denver in March. Been watching Italy, Germany, and England host games in crazy cold weather for decades. How can you possibly think that American 'fanatics' will blindly go fill up NFL stadiums at freezing temperatures but the same 'fanatics' will not fill smaller soccer stadiums for a game that lasts 1/2 as long? Timing may not be right because of economics; but once the popularity boom hits within 15 years, weather will NOT be the factor you think it is.

ReyPygsterio
ReyPygsterio

@M20 @ReyPygsterio Bundesliga's break is only one month and last I checked is watched by virtually no one in this country. Hey, I love Bundesliga, but we are talking about a sport that takes a back seat to a lot of others in the U.S. You can't have a two-month break in the middle of the season here. Will not work.

tajknight
tajknight

@usamnt @positivewins "once the popularity boom hits within 15 years" -- So revisit the idea in 15 years.  In the meantime, accept the reality that in many MLS markets, having the games in the summer increases attendance substantially.

usamnt
usamnt

@ReyPygsterio @M20 You might be right. But you sure sound like the same people that said across the board, "Soccer will not work in the USA." I bet to differ. And the culture is quickly (meaning over the course of a couple decades) going to continue throwing the American sports out in favor of soccer. All the while college athletics will implode on itself due to the slave labor of the NCAA. Wait til MLS brings 50 of the top 200 players from the EPL over.