TORONTO ON - NOVEMBER 21: Changes coming to the schedule and playoffs (couldn't bring myself to post this year's photo) (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Perhaps lost in the commotion emerging from MLS Cup and the Expansion Draft the past several days, comes very important news regarding the MLS schedule for the 2012 regular season, as well as the playoff format. While the 2011 schedule was balanced (meaning each team played every other team on a home and away schedule), the arrival of the Montreal Impact for 2012 means the league office did not believe a balanced schedule was feasible. They cited the necessity of expanding to a 36-game season, as well as prohibitively expensive and long-distance travel, especially for teams on the margins of the continent, as reasons to the new format. I was in favor of the balanced schedule, but it's a moot point for 2012.
Here's the format for the regular season in 2012: there will be 34 matches, like 2011. Teams in the Western Conference, like Chivas USA, will play each team in the conference three times. They will play half of the teams twice at home and once on the road in 2012, and it will be reversed in 2013, meaning there will at least be consistency in the format for two consecutive seasons (perhaps until the 20th MLS club joins the league, anyway).
Continued after the jumpAll teams will play the teams in the other conference once each, playing half at home and half on the road, reversing the schedule in 2013. In the Eastern Conference, with ten teams to the West's nine, they will play seven teams three times, with a similar home and away imbalance to the Western Conference, and play two Eastern Conference teams twice, presumably home and away.
One of the positive ways the league is spinning the changes to more in-conference play is that there is an opportunity to build and possibly even create local rivalries. Many fans have scoffed at this justification, but given the conference format in the league, this is a situation present in every other major professional sports league in the United States and Canada. Simply put, teams play opponents in their region more often than elsewhere. The flipside, potentially, is that schedule imbalance will introduce strength of schedule as an advantage or disadvantage to teams. For example, there's a long way to go before the season starts, but Chivas will have a much tougher time making the playoffs in 2012 if they have to primarily play Western Conference opponents, considering the West was considerably stronger in 2011 than the East. Now, shifts in dominance between the conferences is certainly possible, but most of the best teams in the West look secure in the next few years.
Speaking of the playoffs, changes are coming there as well for 2012. Personally, I understood the 2011 format was unwieldy, but I wasn't too bothered by it, to be honest. That said, I think it is an imperfect system, so we'll see if the masses prefer this system. Ten teams will qualify for the playoffs in 2012, same as 2011, but teams will qualify for their own conferences, instead of being able to play from the opposite conference. In other words, the top five teams in each conference will qualify, not necessarily the top ten teams overall. In the West, having one less team means it will be easier mathematically to qualify for the playoffs, but if one conference is (subjectively, without a balanced schedule) weaker, it won't be reflected in the playoff bracket.
The last two teams in each conference that qualify will play each other in a single match, and the winner will play the top qualifier in their conference. Meanwhile, the conference semifinals and conference finals will both be home and away series, which will probably be welcome news for many. MLS Cup, however, will remain a single match, but instead of having the championship at a neutral site, as it's been for the entire MLS history, the finalist with the highest regular season point total will host the final. That should ensure full attendance, primarily by that team's fans, something that was successful out of coincidence by this past MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center.
What do you think about these changes? Like them? Hate them? Leave a comment below!