Major League Soccer finally announced their new conference-based schedule format for 2012 this morning.
Like the latest Adam Sandler movie, we all knew it was coming, could do nothing to stop it, then once we actually saw it, it was worse than we imagined.
The MLS Board of Governors approved the new plan on Saturday, and the announcement of what 2012 and 2013 will look like in MLS was made this morning before the Supporters’ Summit in LA.
We knew were were going to get an unbalanced schedule and that’s just what we got. How unbalanced it was actually going to be was a bit unexpected.
The MLS’ 19 teams will be split into a nine team Western Conference and a ten team Eastern Conference.
Each team will still play 34 games, 17 at home and 17 away, but games will be more Conference focussed, with more regionalisation of matches and more emphasis being placed on local rivalries.
Western Conference clubs will play each other three times (24 games). They will play four of their conference opponents twice at home and once away, and the other four conference opponents twice away and once at home. These fixtures will then be reversed in 2013.
What this will mean to Whitecaps supporters is likely two trips to say Seattle in 2012, and just one to Portland, with the reverse happening in 2013.
This means that each Cascadian team will play six Cascadia Cup matches from next season. Great for TV, not so great for the pockets of those wanting to travel to all of the three away games to roar on their boys.
Western clubs will complete their schedule by playing each of the ten Eastern Conference clubs once. Five at home and five away, with a reversal of these fixtures again happening in 2013.
Things are a bit different in the Eastern Conference, where each club will play a total of 25 conference matches. Each East club will play seven of their conference opponents three times each (21 games) and the remaining two conference opponents twice (4 games). Yeah, I know.
Their remaining nine fixtures will come from playing Western teams, with five at home and four away for some teams and four at home and five away for others.
It all seems a little bit more complicated than it really needed to be.
During the Supporters Summit, Don Garber again reiterated that a balanced schedule was near impossible logistically. To that, we again say bollocks and direct him to Vancouver Southsider Vice President Brett Graham’s paper on this very subject that proves it very possible indeed.
Garber stated that he wanted to give football a North American flair and that this wasn’t Europe or South America. I fully accept this but you have to also then ask, if things do actually work in these places, then why not here? And why still so focussed on playoffs?
Talking of the playoffs, these will also undergo an overhaul for 2012 and it’s not all bad.
We fully accept and understand that MLS will always have playoffs. It’s the North American way, I’m not in Scotland any more, I just need to get used to it, blah, blah, blah.
As much as I don’t want playoffs, I’m very hypocritical as I actually love the playoffs once they get here and find them a hell of a lot more exciting than the regular season, but that’s only because MLS have devalued the regular season so much for me in the first place.
So if we’re having them, we need to have at least the best playoff system we can. This year’s way was not that system.
Next season, the top five teams from each Conference will qualify for the playoffs, no matter what their actual regular season record is.
The teams finishing fourth and fifth will then playoff to play the number one placed team. Why even bother with this? Why have ten teams? Just make it a straight shoot-out with eight teams.
All of this will guarantee an Eastern and a Western team meeting in the Final, a final which will now be held at the home of the competing team with the best regular season record.
I think this makes sense and is fair. At least it will guarantee a full house and put some more onus on the regular season. You can’t relax once you’ve clinched your playoff spot as every point could count and that can only be a good thing for the League.
So what does all of this mean for Vancouver Whitecaps and Caps fans?
To look at the positives…
Less travel certainly, and less of the costs associated with it for the Club, if not the fans.
It will mean that twelve of the Caps away games will be very manageable for fans to go to. As someone who is used to watching his team, every week, home and away, this is great news at least. Maybe not to my wife or my bank account.
Personally, I was planning on giving up my BC Lions season ticket next season to go to more than the four away games I went to this year. This will now make going to more of these games very possible, if expensive, if we’re not able to take in two or three games on the one trip, like our epic Chivas, Salt Lake and Seattle road trip in June.
What this more regionalisation does mean though is the danger that familiarity will breed disinterest.
Travel to a lot of these away games will not be so special. Will Caps fans really want to make two trips to Portland and four to LA?
Will we start to say “oh, another Cascadian derby match”? Especially if the Cascadia Cup is all wrapped up by that stage and the playoffs are sorted out?
MLS and the TV people are clearly banking on these local rivalries drawing in more viewers at home and electric atmospheres at the stadiums. Let’s hope it’s a gamble that pays off for them and these derby games don’t get diluted.
One thing that worries me is how all of this will affect the Whitecaps playoff chances.
We’re still going to struggle next season, as Martin Rennie basically tries to build a winning team from near scratch. His job is now made all that harder by playing more games against clearly the best teams in MLS.
The Western Conference has been strong for years and is just seemingly getting stronger each season. We were the weakest link this season and with four Western teams missing out on the playoffs next year, we are going to have a mountain to climb.
We could reach this peak, have a great record and still miss out in sixth spot, because some Eastern team with a worse record finishes fifth in their Conference.
This is something which I’m sure is also being mulled over by fans of Portland, San Jose and Chivas.
It’s nonsense and situations like that, along with having an unbalanced schedule in the first place, just devalues the League and lowers opinion of it on a global level.
Then again, MLS might not really care about this. They should though. Especially with their goals of being one of the top Leagues in football by 2022 and if they actually want to attract quality younger players from elsewhere in the world that aren’t just coming here for the money.
We now have this schedule for at least the next two years.
We don’t like it. We don’t want it. But we’re stuck with it.
Now what we all need to do, fans, players and officials, is to make sure we can make it work.
The continued growth of MLS depends on it.