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It is a Change Year

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I'm not talking about US politics, nor the wonderful recession. I'm not talking about the Sonics cum Thunder, nor am I talking about local companies laying people off.

Don Garber gave his State of the League Address. He does this every year prior to the MLS Cup Final (On ABC, you should watch) and with expansion in multiple phases all fans knew that this one would be a doozy.

And it was - there is change in the air and some of these changes might seem quite a bit like my own suggestions from months ago.

Let's break this down section by section from the official MLSnet release.

Roster

Following an extensive review of the operation of the Reserve Division over the past four years, MLS has decided that it will be more efficient to cease operation of the Reserve Division and to divert funds from its operations to more directed programs such as a bolstered senior roster, increased commitment to the Generation Adidas program and focused initiatives to provide leading prospects with game experience, whether in MLS or elsewhere. These options are currently being reviewed by an MLS working group.
Each team will be permitted to carry 18, 19 or 20 senior roster players (at its option) within the overall salary budget (the limit in 2008 was 18 senior roster players). In addition, teams will be permitted to carry up to four developmental players (including Generation Adidas players) outside of the team salary budget. Any team with more than four Generation Adidas players carried forward from 2008 will be grandfathered with respect to the size of their developmental roster.

This change is not insignificant. The increase in Senior Roster Depth should help the teams that are in non-league tournaments. It is notable that none of the CONCACAF Champions League, nor SuperLiga, nor Pan-Pacific Championship teams made it to the Conference Finals in the MLS Cup Playoffs. While this might be good for parity and league wide interest in some one's home club making a run in the MLS Cup it is bad for the possible dream of this league having a great international reputation, as no team under the 18/10 had the depth to make a sustained run.

But there are also hints that this might mean that the relationship between MLS clubs and USL clubs is changing. Without the Reserve League the 4-6 developmental players will have to find playing time elsewhere. This could happen under two different models, and it seems like both are likely to be explored on a team-by-team basis.

The first model is quite similar to Major League Baseball with formalized feeder teams. There is strong indication that the new Kitsap Pumas SC wants a direct relationship with Seattle Sounders FC as a place for developmental players to get time.

The other model would be one where an MLS team had a player or two on multiple teams within a region. There is rumor that DC United is exploring this with a team(s) in Puerto Rico. This would mean that the developmental players don't have a singular coaching style, but it would also mean that each is likely to play in most matches.

Overall I think that the lack of a Reserve League will not be a negative. It should mean that the MLS clubs' youth academies take on greater importance, and that some kind of formalized loaner agreement will exist between MLS clubs and team(s) in the USL or other CONCAF based leagues. This should help all of CONCACAF and MLS. For the Expansion Draft it will likely mean that fewer young players are taken, and for the SuperDraft the Generation Adidas players will have even greater stock.

I was asked by Prost Amerika my thoughts on how this might effect the USL Sounders players, you can read that here.

Schedule

The 2009 season will start on March 21, one week earlier than the 2008 season. Each team will play 30 regular season games. During the 2009 regular season, MLS will either clear its schedule on two weekends, or play with a reduced schedule over four weekends, to reduce World Cup Qualification conflicts. This, the elongated window of the schedule, and a few additional weeknight games, is aimed at reducing the number of conflicts with FIFA fixture dates that teams have faced in recent years.
Of the 15 teams that will compete in 2009, seven will be in the Eastern Conference and eight will be in the Western Conference, where Seattle Sounders FC is the additional team.

Each team will play every other MLS team home and away, for a base of 28 games. Two additional games against intra-conference rivals will complete each team's 30-game schedule.

I got the start date right. No one will argue that the reduction in conflicts with FIFA dates will be a benefit, the only discussion is will this be enough, but considering that the league only has a few teams that turn a profit, a reduction of 5M$ in operating income over a total of 5 weekends would be foolish. This is a solid compromise, and allows individual teams to pick and choose a little bit.

What is also intriguing is the announcement of the two intraconference matches. This will be hard for the scheduler to figure out with the unbalanced conferences and means for certain that in the East this will not be a Home/Away match with a single rival. This means that the clubs, at least in the East get will get to choose they want at home and who they want on the road, but in the West things get interesting.

The West could just add a Home/Away Derby and it would really make a ton of sense as the West has distinct pairings for rivalry cups already. Everyone knows the SuperClassico, but there is also the Rocky Mountain Cup, the Texas Derby and the upcoming Heritage Cup. Though this may only last through 2011 I think it makes a ton of sense for the West to do along the Supporter's Cups. I would actually recommend that the final two games of the season are amongst these pairings as it would mean that those games have meaning even if Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids are out of the playoff race there would still be good attendance and meaning to the final games.

It is notable that Member's of the SSFC Association recently received an email poll that asked which teams they would most like to face. If we don't get the regional derby situation I'm hoping that Seattle brings Houston in for the Home match and has the away at either San Jose or Salt Lake as either of those can be reached via road, rail or air.

Playoffs

A total of eight teams will qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2009. At the conclusion of the regular season, the top two teams in each conference will earn automatic berths. The next four teams in the standings, regardless of conference, will earn wild card berths. This is the same format used in 2007, the last time MLS had an uneven number of teams in each conference.

This is a format change that I advocated on this site and in other places as it places some importance on Conference performance but ensures that the best teams qualify for the tournament. I am saddened that the league will not be moving to fully ranked playoffs but maintain the myth of a Conference Championship, but adding Wild Cards will ensure better playoffs overall. They should stick with this when the league moves to 16 teams and for the first time has a playoff where 50% or less of the league makes it.

International Competitions and U.S. Open Cup

MLS teams may participate in either the CONCACAF Champions League or SuperLiga - but not both.
All U.S.-based MLS teams will participate in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Qualification for the 2009/2010 CONCACAF Champions League will be as follows:

(1) MLS Cup Winner
(2) Supporters' Shield Winner (Columbus Crew)
(3) MLS Cup Runner-Up
(4) U.S. Open Cup Winner* (D.C. United)

In the event that the same team occupies two qualification spots above, then as needed the following team(s) qualify for the tournament:

(5) Next Team in Regular Season Points.
(6) Next Team in Regular Season Points.

(Ties are broken according to the same system used for MLS playoff qualification.)

Given these criteria, the teams qualifying for the 2009/2010 CONCACAF Champions League will be Columbus Crew, New York Red Bulls, D.C. United and Houston Dynamo. Because Columbus will occupy both the Supporters' Shield berth and either the MLS Cup Winner or MLS Cup Runner-Up berth, Houston qualifies as the fourth team with the next most points in MLS during the 2008 regular season.

Qualification for SuperLiga 2009 will be as follows:

The top four teams, based on regular season record, who are not competing in CONCACAF Champions League in 2009, will qualify for SuperLiga 2009. Given these criteria, Chicago Fire, New England Revolution, Kansas City Wizards, and Chivas USA have qualified for SuperLiga 2009 based on their records in 2008.

Let's focus first on the unknown in this section. We can't know what "all teams will participate in the US Open Cup" means. First we know its wrong as Toronto FC will not. They will be in the Canadian Championship. That leaves 14 teams in MLS and the USA who will participate in the US Open Cup.

It is notable that according to the US Open Cup website, only 8 MLS clubs participated. Garber would likely consider the Qualification matches participation, but the Open Cup does not. We might have to see MLS teams enter a round earlier, which would reduce chances that a USL team wins it, or we will see the DON reclassify participation to suit MLS' needs. Each has its advantages (because having a USL Club win the Open Cup would rock).

Splitting the CCL and SuperLiga up into separate team pools will reduce the strain on individual clubs, but it will also mean that there won't be a singular dominant team in all of the various league, league sanctioned and non-league tournaments. But I like that the emphasis was placed on the CCL, with the SL being bumped to secondary tier. This is what most MLS fans wanted, and we got it.

There are still questions about Designated Player slots and Salary Cup rules that remain unanswered. It is probable that the league makes no changes to these with the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, but still likely that the league continues to make small increases to the Cap.

There is also intriguing fallout from the decision of Montreal to withdraw from the bidding for an expansion slot, as well as Atlanta and St.Louis not giving formal presentations. I expect that we might see that the next two rounds of expansion are announced at once with four to six teams getting in 2011/2013. This would get the league a serious cash infusion in a time when the American and Canadian consumer is unlikely to be spending quite as much.

This could lead MLS to having positive cash flow for a majority of its teams in 2009, when leagues like the NBA and NHL might have teams missing payroll due to a lack of attendance. Garber has already won the MLS recognition as the best sports league of the year in 2007, and he could get it again in 2009 with the changes already announced combined with the expansion announcements.

There are still some necessary improvements that the league could make that don't relate to what has already been announced or mentioned here. Primarily with the pre-season and organization of pre-season tournaments. Currently we see both the Pan Pacific Championshipand the Carolina Challenge Cup. As a resident of Cascadia I would like to see the Cascadia Cup added to the list, as well as a few others. Basically my ideal would be a handful of regional tournaments that would include MLS, USL and invitees from other leagues to participate in the pre-season. This would give the pre-season minor meaning, as well as keep one of the great soccer traditions of North America alive.

Lastly from the announcement we have learned that the city of Seattle and the Greater Puget Sound definitely earned its MLS club as we have passed the 18,000 season ticket mark. How do we do it? To quote my own response

Understand the market
Invite the people to participate
Be promised a team a decade before you get it
Promise that the goal is not to be just a good MLS team, but a good team in tournaments as well
Lastly, have the best minor league GM in the 21st Century join you for the leap up

What Roth, Hanauer, Liewke/Allen and Carey have done is quite simply amazing. I know that everyone thinks that TFC is the benchmark, but guess what? Sounders FC has passed their 2008 mark, by at least 1,400 and that number is climbing. It is possible that SSFC has more season ticket holders than any two teams combined due to the nature of the recession and our decade long desire to see the top flight here in the Sound.