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MLS to unveil unbalanced 2012 schedule with “rivalry focus”

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Major League Soccer is very close to unveiling a new playoff system and a new way to award the MLS Cup game.

In a state-of-the MLS conference call Thursday, commissioner Don Garber said that the league’s competition committee — which includes Vancouver Whitecaps’ partner Greg Kerfoot — is very close to finalizing a new format for the 2012 season.

With Montreal joining MLS next season — increasing the league’s roster of teams to 19 — a 36-game schedule would be needed to ensure each team met every other club in the league home and away during the season. Garber confirmed that this would not happen — the league will keep a 34-game slate, which means an unbalanced schedule.

Garber wouldn’t say exactly what the new format will be, but it will have a “rivalry” focus. So, expect to see more Cascadia games for the Whitecaps. More Colorado vs. Real Salt Lake. More Chivas vs. Los Angeles Galaxy. And Toronto and Montreal could face each other more than twice next season.

Garber said that the discrepancy between some teams in terms of their travel schedules was an issue for the league. Interesting that he used the Whitecaps, who traveled 60,000 miles this season, as the team with the toughest time dealing with travel. He compared that to some other clubs in the East, who only traveled half that distance.

Simply put, he said you can’t try to replicate the formats of small European leagues, where players bus everywhere and go home every night, to the challenge of traveling across the U.S. and Canada.

“We live here in the United States, and there are certain restrictions and facts of life we have to adhere to.”

What Garber didn’t get a chance to address in the call was if the schedule would address long-distance rivalries, such as Montreal and Vancouver (a good one that dates back to Div. 2 and Nutrilite Canadian Championship matches) or Los Angeles and New York. But you have to assume that TSN, the national broadcast partner for MLS in Canada, would want to see as many games between Toronto FC, the Whitecaps and Impact as possible. In a follow-up call, league spokesman Will Kuhns said there is a strong likelihood that each team is still guaranteed to face each other at least once in the season, and there is a recognition on MLS part of the strong rivalries and markets within Canada. Does that mean Montreal and Vancouver will play twice in a season? No answer on that, yet.

But having more games between regional rivals is good for the atmosphere — and box offices — at stadiums throughout the league.

“More games between teams that are closer to each other means more travelling fans going to games, and that’s good for the league,” he said.

As well, the committee is looking very closely at scrapping the awarding of MLS Cup to a neutral-site venue. The committee is closer than ever to approving a measure that would see the team with the best record of the two finalists host the big game.

And, the playoff format will be re-evaluated. This year, there was widespread criticism of the new 10-team tournament, which saw the bottom four teams whittled down to two through a pair of play-in games. But, the games happened in midweek after the season ended on a Sunday, and an announced crowd of well less than 10,000 in Colorado and barely 10,000 in Dallas came out the matches. And, having the top three teams in each conference all qualify, and the rest come in on wild cards, created a confusing scenario. New York crossed over and went into the Western Conference playoffs and Colorado crossed over and went into the East.

“I was surprised by the strong negative reactions of the play-in games,” said Garber. “I don’t believe it hurt the competitive play on the field — but it made it harder to sell tickets.”

MLS will also work with the Canadian Soccer Association and the United States Soccer Federation on “how we can manage officiating aspect of business.”

From clear dives that resulted in penalties to some very controversial red cards, the league’s referees have been under fire this season from fans and the media. Garber hinted that, to promote attacking soccer, more changes to the disciplinary system would be introduced in 2012. Already, there was a crackdown initiated by the league in 2011, and it likely influenced some very, shall we say, interesting calls made by officials this year.

And, even though the refs are under fire, Garber maintained that, for the most part, they do very good jobs. He said MLS has access to better camera angles than fans get at home, and that in reviewing some controversial calls, the refs are proven to be right.

“Our officiating is a hell of a lot better than people give us credit for. It’s a difference of perception vs. reality… the officiating isn’t as bad as some people across the country feel it is.”

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3 Comments

  1. Andre

    November 11, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Garber hasn’t done an all together bad job, but he has some clearly non-soccer ideas. We have to mimic the most successful soccer countries in the world (at a club level at least) and those are clearly Spain and England. We should structure our leagues after theirs, promotion relegation, and a balanced schedule, with no playoffs, one winner, thats it. We could also foment the Open Cup as the MLS’ FA Cup, and the Nutrilite Cup as ours. Why complicate something so simple? Why mess up something that has worked for over a century…

    • Steven Sandor

      November 11, 2011 at 4:28 pm

      I am of two minds on this. I understand the soccer traditionalists’ push for a single table, promotion-relegation. But, right now, USSF, the governing body, has structured it so the official Division 2 (NASL) is a separate entity from MLS. And, from all I have heard, MLS owners are in no way interested at this time to spend money on their own second division. (And, why would they? Where’s the economic benefit to them.) There is no will up top. Why do Montreal and Vancouver keep their NASL memberships alive? Because they would rather put reserve teams in NASL than the current system. They see NASL as the viable Div.-2 moving forward, no matter what people say about Traffic owning most of the league.

      North American sports have different structures because of the legalities involved. We have territorial rights — for example, no one else can have a franchise in Toronto or Vancouver or Chicago or any other MLS city without league permission, which is rarely granted. Europe has no such regulations… Tottenham and Arsenal are very close to each other, as are Fulham and Chelsea. Inter and AC Milan share a stadium. You have major cities with seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 teams. Because of that, the law of averages ensures that all major centres have teams in their top flights. You would never see every London, Milan or Moscow team relegated out of their respective top divisions. If Europe did have our structure — say that Chelsea and Arsenal were the only London teams allowed to exist, or that PSG was the only Paris team — you would immediately see a large push for relegation to end.

      So, in terms of pro-rel, we can’t put the cart before the horse. You would need for some changes to be made in league structures not just in soccer but across all the North American sports leagues. (Trust me, they do things in step with each other.) Before even entertaining the idea, you would need to get rid of territorial restrictions. And, if MLS did that, the calls from other league offices and their lawyers would probably drive Don Garber crazy.

      With current territorial restrictions, the league simply couldn’t afford to have, as it stands, its only Chicago team and only New York team relegated in the same season. What if Seattle, which props up the league’s attendance numbers big time, went down, with no one to replace it in what is North America’s best soccer market?

      I like playoffs. I don’t like the MLS’ current playoff system at all — too many teams get in, too confusing — but, I am not a super traditionalist. I find that watching Manchester City run away and hide from the rest of the EPL is well… kinda boring. So is watching Rangers and Celtic run away from the pack in Scotland each and every year. If you could develop a legitimate playoff system, which MLS can hopefully do in this next go-round, I think it would be unique.

      MLS has always tried to make its fans — and media — understand that it wants to bring a North American flavour to the world’s game. We in the media are gently encouraged not to use British-isms in our termiology (“out of bounds,” not “into touch,” a game is “tied,” not “drawn”).

      I don’t have an issue with MLS American-izing (or Canadian-izing) the world’s game. It just hasn”t got the system down yet.

      • Andre

        November 12, 2011 at 2:37 am

        I understand your points, and I think that playoffs might work, but as you say, they have to be more logical and consistent in their format.

        I do think that we should abolish territorial restrictions. Never mind the great inter city rivalries you see in Europe, how about one of MLS’s better ones; Chivas v LA? Also, with New York being discussed as a market for a second MLS team, there could be another local rivalry.

        If a team feels that it can be relegated, it will be more likely to invest in itself, as there will be consequences for not doing so. Conversely there will be the hope of promotion in lower teams, who in turn will be able to attract fans and generate local interest in their teams bettering grassroots soccer development, Now their seasons and outcomes finally would mean something.

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