So many euro footie fans express desires for the mythical single table (Setting the Table shows the league as if it were). They like how the standings would look, they would be simple and remind everyone of the EPL, etc. These dreams of a single table are generally expressed by the same people who desire MLS to be the top league in North America representing the entire United States, a league that doesn't interfere with the US Open Cup and certainly not with World Cup qualifying.
A single table with an unbalanced schedule is patently unfair to teams that play more games vs tougher opponents, and a single table with a balanced schedule destroys the quest for expansion beyond 22 teams with current schedule demands.
Should MLS really go to a single table? Or should it find other ways to improve the league, its schedule and its overall level of representation on the international stage?
What are the issues that face MLS now and in the near future, as pertains to the Single Table?
Desire for a 28-38 game regular season (Current season is 30, most leagues play 38)
- National Team Competitions: World Cup, Gold Cup, Olympics, etc
- US Open Cup
- CONCACAF Champion's League
- SuperLiga (an exhibition contest with a decent prize for ownership)
- Preseason Tourneys (Pan Pacific Championship)
Available relative sunshine (ie the distinct feeling that fans won't show in the Winter)
Expansion: A truly National League can't only have 17 teams in the USA
All of these are issues due to scheduling concerns, sporting fairness and the success of the league in establishing itself on the international stage through its development of players for their national team and through the teams' performance on the international stage.
I'm going to operate under the assumption that everyone wants a league where the teams that advance to the playoffs are not determined by their strength of schedule, but on their performance on the pitch. If you didn't want that you'd be an NFL or NCAA football fan. Fairness in scheduling matters, and so for this reason single table must be either a double or single round robin. This is also a reason why the number of wild cards matters, because mediocre teams should rarely make the playoffs. And yes, I'm operating under the assumption that the playoffs are here to stay. I like them for one reason, and one reason only, they correct for scheduling inadequacies of conference/division/derby play.
There's one other assumption that I will operate under, and that's that promotion/relegation will not be a factor in MLS, as no owner will buy into a team that is ever in danger of being relegated. Think about it this way, would you buy a car if there was any chance that a single year would turn it into a bicycle? Didn't think so.
You may have questions as to why the league can't just stop at 22 teams and be a single table as some of the European leagues do. Quite simply it comes down to geography, population density and the nature of MLS as the top league of Canada and the United States of America.
Take a look
That handy little map shows the population density of the lower 48 and Southern Canada. No just visualize for me the current known teams over that. There are 16 that will be playing in 2010 as our Sounders and Philadelphia both join the league. Now think to Garber's short list for the 17th and 18th slots. Visualize even the five most likely to get in next - Vancouver BC, Portland, Montreal, New York 2 and St Louis.
Look back at the map.
Did you notice that there are enormous swaths of population that have absolutely no reason to care about MLS even if they are soccer fans? Even by expanding to 21 teams in the US and Canada the South is devoid of a team. The midwest has three. We'd literally be attempting to have a national league that left half of the nation without a team outside of a day trip to and from a game.
That effects TV ratings, driving them down as there isn't local investment in the product. (link) Locally you can see this in the late growth of baseball in Seattle. It didn't being a dominant option for sports entertainment until a second generation was exposed to the sport locally.
The other effect of gaining a truly national footprint is that the number of youth who grow up thinking they can play professionally increases. That growth is key to long term success of the league, and of the US (and Canadian) National teams.
In short, expansion past 22 teams will happen, because it is the only way the league will truly be a national league and not just pockets of regional interest.
So what's are the solutions to the table v conference dilemma, how do enough games get fitted into the sunny months, and how does the league avoid as many FIFA international dates as possible?
1 - Expand the regular season window. Currently the league's season goes from the last weekend of March through the 3rd week of October. With minimal weather impacts around the league the season could start in the 3rd week in March through the 1st week of November. That 34 week period allows for bye weeks (often matching up with FIFA dates, to include having the Group stages of the Gold Cup and World Cup completely off from league play). Depending on Conference/Division/Derby structure that could even still fit a single game a week strategy.
2 - Shorten the playoff window. Don't play every playoff game on the weekend. Have two match-ups in the Quarterfinals meet for a Wed/Sat Home and Away, and the others on Thurs/Sun. Continue in the Semis. This, combined with the expanded regular season window, would have a season that in total only lasts two more weeks than currently.
3 - Change the SuperLiga qualification. Recognize that this is an exhibition tournament, recognize that by having the teams that qualify for the SL be those that perform the best in preseason action, possibly to include the best performers from MLS in the PanPacific Championship and three other similarly styled tourneys. This would reduce the likelihood that there would be overlap between the SL, the Playoffs and the CCL. In effect it creates a secondary parallel tournament that would be of interest like the League Cup vs the Champions League for the EPL.
4 - Emphasis that the league structure creates the opportunity for the team that wins the regular season or any playoff qualifier to compete in the World Club Cup.
5 - Increase roster depth in order to allow greater ability to compete multiple times in a week in competitions like the US Open Cup/Canadian Championship and the CCL. MLS must prove itself as internationally capable and the relatively compressed schedule that MLS has forces deep rosters. Small changes like growing from 18/10 to 21/15 so that the Developmental Roster can field a full team in a Reserve Match would be a start. Having Developmental players make more than they could by working as a shift supervisor as Starbucks would be kind of necessary in improving depth as well. Small but significant increases in overall player salary could help stem the losses to 4th and 5th tier Euro leagues as well.
With changes like this the league could exist as a national entity with 24/27/30/32 total teams when expansion is all done. The playoff reward would only go to the winners of the Conferences and the next X teams to make 8 total, regardless of team size. What MLS needs to do in its next expansion and scheduling discussion is show that the structure at 16 and 18 and whatever will not be dramatically different than it will as a complete and total league in English speaking North America.
These ideas don't solve every issue facing MLS, but they start to address the multiple layers of competition that make the sport itself so intriguing.