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Predicting The Next Moves For MLS Reconfiguration: A 33-Game Schedule

It is said that chess grandmasters can visualize the next fifteen moves their opponent will make. Experience is the biggest reason why. Since every player has a finite quantity of options available, the more unique situations a person studies, the more he or she can draw upon patterns from the past. Complemented with trustworthy instincts, and a dash of luck, advanced players can make near-perfect assumptions as to what the future holds. 

At the moment, this is what the expansion of Major League Soccer (MLS) feels like to me. Now, I don't claim to be spot-on with my viewpoints, but I have done enough research to at least say I have an educated hunch. Together, we'll have to see how many moves I am ahead of the league office.

Recently, I've outlined why I believe the MLS should only carry 27 teams in their portfolio. And since that isn't likely to occur, I've also followed up with a timeline for spots 27 and 28. The CliffsNotes synopsis of those college dissertations: The league is screwed. 28 is not ideal. Yet, they will bludgeon fans and owners with an imbalanced (and reduced) schedule anyhow. You may recall that I selected next May (specifically Tuesday the 21st) for the formal announcement of St. Louis as club number 28. The following is based of that assumption. 

Prediction 1: By 2022, Major League Soccer is going to roll out a 33-game schedule. Do not be surprised if it shows up as early as 2020. As I mentioned in my piece from a month ago, this is Option 4, but the only card the league really has to play. 

Here's the explanation on how I've arrived at that number. The safe bet is that commissioner Don Garber — along with president/deputy commissioner Mark Abbott — will disperse the 28 teams into four divisions of seven. The map [above] shows my best take on those geographic groupings, with Austin and St. Louis rounding out the announced field. Note: Columbus is included. 

These divisions operate like the regions in college basketball's annual March Madness — East, South, Midwest, and West quadrants of the bracket. With no good east/west (or north/south) dividing line any longer, I foresee conferences taking on a more fluid NFC/AFC feel. In other words, the geography matters for divisions (micro), but doesn't with the conferences (macro). Pair one pool of seven with another to split the total, 14 and 14. It is the NCAA tournament under an NFL umbrella.

Linking two of the divisions can honestly be done any which way, without any repercussions to the schedule. You could rotate the combinations on an annual basis or stick with the same sets of two for decades. It only ever matters in the league's semifinal match; deciding which "regional" winner squares off with another in Major League Soccer's equivalent of the Final Four. We'll talk more about that in a moment. 

Other than that penultimate round of the playoffs, the mixing and matching of East and South or East and Midwest is irrelevant. In either setup, the quantity of games against all possible opponents remains unchanged. Those that are within a team's division will be played twice (home and away), while everyone on the outside gets a singular match. 

If you're doing the math, that equals 33 regular-season games (12 conference, 21 non). Yes, this a reduction from the current 34. Yes, 33 is an odd number. Yes, it does mean some teams will have 16 home games while others get 17. No, this isn't great. That's why I've been lobbying against it for years. Unfortunately, this is where we are. All I can do now is illuminate an audience on how MLS will polish this turd.     

For starters, let's call the two conferences the "American" and "National"; the low-hanging fruit, I know, but they are easily-digested working titles. In 2022, we'll say the American Conference is made up of the Midwest and West Division. The South and East comprise the National.   

The following uses St. Louis as my guinea pig (err, test tube) to showcase future modifications to the league calendar. They are placed in the Midwest Division alongside Columbus, Cincinnati, Chicago, Kansas City, Minnesota, and Colorado: 
Prediction 2: The league can start looking into a major sponsorship with retail chain Weekends Only, because there's not a Tuesday or Wednesday match to be found. This might be one of the few things owners enjoy about the schedule. For years, a large portion has been clambering for fewer weekday games — since they tend to draw smaller crowds. Similarly, Major League Soccer Players' Association (MLSPA) sees three matches in an eight-day span as undue taxation on their clients' bodies. 

My counterargument to this has always been something along the lines of "Every major soccer league in the world plays mid-week matches. It adequately tests fitness levels and gets domestic players better prepared for international competition." Furthermore, the other big-ticket sporting events in this country generally occur on weekends. This move keeps MLS in a red ocean rather than asserting ownership of a bluer section of the calendar. 

I also argue that any hit to the current bottom line — caused by diminished midweek ticket sales — isn't going to be rectified in the future by shrinking the total quantity of matches per season. Owners can't have it both ways.  

That is one potential revenue dip. Another will occur if a franchise loses the freshly-minted "home-field lottery." Prediction 3: Under this structure, there is no way to ensure entire divisions go out-of-conference on equal footing, in terms of home and road splits. Thus, a random draw will have to determine who is shorted a regular-season game in their buildings each year. In my example, St. Louis is in the unlucky half that plays 16 home matches. Some sort of collectively-bargained kitty of money and/or draft picks will be created to compensate the annual "losers."     

The issues with this are fairly obvious: Ticket sale disparity, problems with playing common opponents in different settings than your rivals do, uneven travel expenses, on and on and on. You get the gist; it sucks. But this is what is coming down the pike, people. I promise you. Unless Garber can convince owners to be okay with not playing everyone each season. Which I strongly doubt. This philosophy is the bedrock of not only MLS, but the NHL and NBA as well. Supporters want to root against stars their team opposes almost as much as they enjoy pulling for their side. Taking away one shot at every other team does not seem appetizing or probable.  

The low-hanging fruit on this issue is: "Add one more game per team to balance the home schedules, while maintaining 34-game consistency."

Okay. Who plays who? And why?  

Which natural rivals pair up for a third contest? If Houston plays Dallas, then where does Austin fit? Same with the third wheel in the Vancouver/Portland/Seattle triangle. Major League Baseball tried this additional natural rivalry weekend for awhile, only to scrap it and go Interleague all the time. There was a hard time convincing folks in Denver and Detroit that the Rockies (est'd. 1993) and Tigers (est'd. 1901) had some deep-seeded angst towards one another. 

There's also seven teams in each division so one has to pair up with another outside their borders. What does this do to the fairness of divisional standings? What if both clubs need to host it in order to get to 17 home matches? You could actually exacerbate the home/road disparity. You see how this only makes the situation messier? 

I have arguably spent way too much time diving into all the other 28-team "solutions" and they don't get better than this. Again, I urge you to read the middle chapters of this precursor piece to see the reasons why. 

Other notable items to glean from the calendar include a start date of February 26 or 27, 2022. The end of the regular season, annual Decision Day, is set for Saturday, October 15. For reference, the 2018 season began on March 3 and ran until October 28. There's not too much to read into this. The future fixtures will bump up a week and cleave off another; a transition that is already headed this way. The goal is to put the season to bed prior to [American] Thanksgiving, and that pesky mid-November international break. This is especially important in 2022 with the odd timing of the FIFA World Cup. 

Also on the horizon is a single-match format for the MLS Cup Playoffs. The two-legged quarter and semifinal will soon be a thing of the past. In fact, that could be here as early as next season. What that looks like — in my 2022 calendar — is a Knockout Round, Divisional Round, Conference Final, and MLS Cup on back-to-back-to-back-to-back Saturdays. It is as efficient as it gets; over and done in 22 days. Yet is likely to provide an adequate challenge to the winner, while offering fans plenty of parity.  

Prediction 4: Twelve teams get in; the top three from each division. I have heard the rumblings of a 14-team bracket, but those are downright foolish. 50% of the league being included adds too much emphasis on the wrong part of the season. It's also nightmarish in its logistics. One team per conference would get a bye, while everyone else is seeded 2-7. The difficulty in identifying who is most deserving of this off week stems from a lack of competitive balance.  

Shy of a selection committee or computer poll, there would be no method available to accurately organize an overall league table. When every club plays an erratic home schedule, 65 points in the East Division could be a very different 65 points in the South. In any given year, it could put an asterisk on the beloved Supporters' Shield. The griping after Decision Day would be severe. 

We beat them head-to-head! Their division was way weaker! They got all the tough teams at home! These are going to become the fashionable phrases, repurposed from college football message boards. Congratulations, MLS. You could have a system where all determinations are unchallenged; everything settled right on the pitch. Instead, your rankings will be as muddled as the most controversial playoff process in modern sports.   

If only there was a way to crown a league champion using a regular season in which all competitors played all other competitors an equal number of times on the road as they did at home. Hmm... Nope. Soccer just doesn't have any models like that to turn to for inspiration.

We've already established that we'll no longer be living in the Eastern Conference/Western Conference world of the past and present. It simply cannot exist as neat and tidy with 28 clubs. This playoff format will have to adjust accordingly, while maintaining the current standard of 12 participants.  

If stealing from the NCAA and NFL wasn't good enough, this postseason tournament also shares a common framework with the modern NHL playoff bracket. It is also as close as one can get to the proposed Group Stage playoff proposed by Sports Illustrated's Brian Straus and Grant Wahl. The concept is about internalizing the first two rounds into highly-intense division rivalries. Then, the next rounds release you into the wild, to go represent your geographic cluster well. 

Take the regular-season division title and you earn yourself a bye week of the playoffs. Again, the league could amend which divisions line up in the Conference Finals however they see fit:
Where this grand plan misses the mark the most is, ironically, the selling point I hear about St. Louis non-stop: The league needs St. Louis to forge natural rivalries in this part of the country.

Regularly recycled by local talking heads, the tip of this marketing spear is essentially what a bid will do for Kansas City and Chicago. It's like you can't hear a complete thought on St. Louis' chances to get an expansion franchise without someone uttering those two cities.

My first thought: If a bid is that dependent on others around it, it's not that strong to begin with. That's getting picked for the winning team in a gym-class wiffle ball game only because your buddy lobbied the captain. Second thought: If regional rivalries are that valuable to MLS success (and I wholeheartedly believe they are) then shouldn't the schedule reflect their importance? 

In the future, the league is going to get caught in between. They sure talk a lot about these big derbies and regional cups meaning something. But their 28-team resolution is going to actually stymie the very thing they claim to covet. Here's a list of rivals that have played each other at least three times per season since both have been in the top flight of American soccer: Houston/Dallas, Montreal/New England, Orlando/Atlanta, Seattle/Portland, Los Angeles/Los Angles, and Colorado/Salt Lake.

Prediction 5: Under a new system, those days will be no more. A home-and-home series is all supporters will get; with a hope that they meet again in the first or second round of the playoffs. A lazy mindset conditions us to believe more teams in a league means fewer chances for rivals to meet. Gone are the late '90s where Chicago/Kansas City, San Jose/Los Angeles, and New York/New England would meet four times a year. This is simply not true. There are options out there to grow a league while having the frequency of these natural rivalries — that I've heard so much about — also increasing.    

It all boils down to a simple question every Major League Soccer supporter has to ask themselves: How many times do I want to see my club play the others?

For this exercise, I used the two leading candidates for the final expansion bid — St. Louis and Sacramento. Answer each situation independently: Which would you prefer to see, Schedule A or B?
The mixed messaging is real. Local supporters are getting beat over the head with how important St. Louis and Sacramento are to creating natural rivalries. Their reward: Schedule B is awfully light on them. Buzz words "Chicago" and "Kansas City" appear in only 12.1% of St. Louis' regular-season slate. With Schedule A, that percentage is 21.1% — on par with the frequency the Cubs and Brewers will play the Cardinals in 2019 (22.8%). 

You mean to tell me Sporting KC coming to play in the new downtown St. Louis stadium once every 12-15 months is what all the hype is about? Could you imagine the response if the Blackhawks came to the Enterprise Center once a year? God forbid a fan is sick or has an immovable conflict. I didn't realize Garber was turning all franchises into "One Night Only" rock stars. I included a Sporting KC v. Siege Saint Louis match in my mock playoffs just to get them to play a third time in a season. That's territory reserved for the NFL and its 16-game slate. A rubber match between the Steelers and Ravens in a January win-or-go-home scenario is dramatic. Having the same occur in Major League Soccer is idiotic.

With a fixture list twice the size, why are supporters of division foes left praying for a trilogy to play out in the postseason? A third match should be guaranteed in the regular season... and then an extra one for good measure. Think about this: A simple two-game, home-and-home arrangement is no different than the Florida Panthers and Vancouver Canucks or Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors squaring off twice a year. I, for one, feel STL-KC and STL-CHI deserve better treatment than that. This is especially frustrating when we've been beaten over the head by talk of "rivalries, rivalries, rivalries" for years. 

Part of the problem is the overall quantity of matches about to be presented to the public. The league has been hinting at regular-season reduction for months now. And I, for one, cannot figure out how any of that makes supporters, owner-investors, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), and the MLS board of governors happy. Isn't this expansion? 

Even with a run to the simulated 2022 title game, Siege Saint Louis would only play 37 total matches. Saturday's MLS Cup will be the 39th league-sponsored competition for Atlanta United FC in 2018; 40th for the Portland Timbers. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called regression.

Not lost in all of this is the minor footnote that 2022 is the final year of the current television deal with FOX Sports, ESPN, and Univision. The three networks now combine to pay MLS $90 million per season; a value that is five times greater than the 2007-14 agreement it replaced. Will this trio re-up if the frequency of the primetime matches decreases? 

TV contracts ultimately make or break professional sports leagues. The national sports media sure enjoys touting the popularity decrease in baseball. Yeah, team owners are struggling alright. Struggling to spend all their money. 29 of 30 MLB clubs are number one in primetime cable programming within their regional market. This equates to a handful of regional sports networks (RSNs) annually collecting more than $75 million

To keep heads above water, Major League Soccer must, at minimum, double the fee it charges that next multi-year broadcast partner. We'll have to see if that is a price someone is willing to pay. Who knows? Perhaps a better plan — than this 28-team "meh" fest — could net MLS another x5 multiplier.   

There's also the issue with the offseason. If you shave even a single game from the regular season, those that miss the playoffs will have unprecedented time away from meaningful competition. October 15, 2022 to the following February's training camp is a long stretch of days. That sure won't make players any better prepared for call-ups to their respective national teams... or hot commodities in the January transfer window. 

This also means that schedule makers can't afford to throw in a midweek game, even if you wanted to. It would shorten the regular season — thus lengthening the offseason — by an additional week.     

As a refresher, this is the same St. Louis schedule under my proposed 27-team, 38-game format. Compare and contrast the two if you'd like:

It seems counterintuitive to want to strip professional athletes of their precious time spent with family, but shortening the offseason from this 33-game model is a must. What will end up being 134 days between regular-season contests, under the proposed format, is just too long. Conversely, my calendar would hold MLS Cup on the Saturday before Thanksgiving (November 19, 2022) with the 2023 regular season starting up — a soft opening by top-of-the-table clubs — on Wednesday, February 22, 2023. That adds up to 95 days after the title game and 123 free for players on non-playoff teams; much closer to the 84 and 127 days experienced in 2017-18. More well-earned rest for the champs and less for those dying for on-field redemption. 

Additional strengths of my model include overall home/road balance among common opponents, a single table that judges clubs apples-to-apples, and 38 regular-season matches (to mirror other major leagues in the world). Don't worry, thanks to a streamlined playoffs, the MLS Cup champion and runner-up are still only playing 41 games a season — one more than Portland in 2018. 

To have 14 franchises a mere decade ago, and now be contemplating 28, is unfathomable. It has been too much, too fast. If only the artists took a periodic step back to check on the full expanse of their work. Instead, Garber and Abbott initiated a full-court press; only stopping now because it gives the appearance of a nice, round number. 

Prediction 6: The quality of the league will suffer from this overzealousness. Mark my words. Talent will be watered down by yet another franchise entering a lesser league (compared to the world at large). Supporters will be lulled into a false sense of joy when Cincinnati joins next March. The balanced, 24-team format will admittedly work quite well. Without a doubt, this will cultivate group think on the topic: Two more teams will make this even better. Then it won't happen. Nashville and Miami's 2020 entrance will be a preview for further destabilization to come. 26, and then 28, will show why not only the prime numbers are awful to work with in dividing things equally.   

Then I think about the alternative to this rapid expansion. If I had my way — and Major League Soccer capped expansion at 27 — then St. Louis would not be among the chosen. That's a far worse outcome for this city I have come to love.  

So my real regret is not getting expansion closed at 27 clubs with St. Louis on the inside. Indeed, timing and opportunity are everything. If only my collection of research, first brought to the league office in 2016, would have been taken seriously. The entire process left me feeling as if I had fallen into a deep well and no one could hear me scream. Perhaps "less-deserving" markets like Cincinnati and Nashville would not have gobbled up bids 24 and 26 (Miami technically sneaks in as 25). Point being, St. Louis should have safely made it across the threshold long ago, slamming the window shut in the face of any hopeful 28th franchise.  

Courtesy of a Columbus/Austin debacle, the only way St. Louis could now get in as number 27 would be to wish the worst possible thing on a fellow fan base: Columbus Crew SC relocating. And St. Louisans know this pain far too well to hope for that outcome. 

The conflict of interest runs extremely deep in my household. Austin entering as an expansion franchise ends the possibility of me getting everything on my wish list. There's no way I can have my beloved Crew stay, a franchise in my new hometown, and the 27-team league I proposed. My only hope is for a different established team to fold or someday get relegated — without a promoted Division-II club to take its place. Why couldn't Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV) have purchased the Chicago Fire and want to move them to Austin? Alas, it will be bid number 28 or bust for "The Lou." 

It's sad really. I appears that the ongoing process of MLS growth never had a fully-baked plan of attack. Will it be "good enough"? Sure, I guess. But when you lay out a timeline for 14 new franchises in ten short years, shouldn't you be striving for a higher standard than "Yeah, it sorta works." In a sport with razor thin margins and legitimate home-field advantages, these are things the league should care much more about.  

Prediction 7: Most supporters won't even know there's anything fundamentally wrong. Saint Louis' 2022 schedule will be released and everyone will be happy as hell to attend those 16 regular-season matches. In truth, myself included. 16 is better than zero. When the local team hits the road — to the nearest day-tripping stadiums — each diehard fan will be circling the date to join that convoy. But they won't know more of those contests were available. Or worse, they won't read the fine print that "This Saturday's matchup in New Jersey is inherently bullshit because the Fire got to play the Red Bulls at home, and we are two points in back of Chicago for the three seed in the division."    

And that is where we stand. In this market, especially, the typical consumer is screaming "I want soccer" so loudly that they are unaware of what that product might actually look like when delivered. Most don't want to listen to me because I'm being "bogged down by the semantics." 

"Okay," I typically respond, "we'll see what you have to say when the new club starts finding some success." If the city gets a team, none of the details matter... right up until they start mattering. The moment a scheduling glitch costs Saint Louis an MLS Cup Playoff spot, please think of me. 

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