That the 2012 Major League Soccer season will be unbalanced comes as little surprise. The surprise is that MLS' Board of Governors decided to go with the least balance they could thereby creating enormous strength of schedule differences both for the overall standings and within the Conference. When MLS Executive Vice-President Nelson Rodriguez says "We have established a fair and compelling format for the 2012 season," one must wonder what the definition of fair is that he's using.
His next statements concerning regional rivalries is quite true.
This regular season will include more games between regional rivals and less total travel than we have seen in recent years. Because of the wide geographic distribution of MLS clubs, this structure should improve the quality of play, while continuing to give every club an equal chance of qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs.
And considering that hyperunbalance hasn't killed of the Cascadia Rivalry (despite it being the norm in all but a handful of seasons) MLS attendance and even tv ratings should go up through this move. A dramatic reduction in travel time and distance could even lead to a higher quality of play. In no other soccer league do teams travel as much as MLS. Reducing overall travel could even spur some players to choose to play in some of the more remote cities (say Cascadia?) as this is an issue that looms in other North American sports leagues. There are some positives about the schedule, but the dramatic level of unbalance leads to issues about MLS Cup Playoff qualification.
MLS is attempting to answer that by having the Playoffs be Conference only affairs until the Final. The top three teams from each Conference will advance to the Conference Semis while the 4th and 5th seed compete in the Play-In Round. This is a generally positive change particularly in a lightly unbalanced schedule, except that isn't the schedule they chose. Instead this format will lead to strength of schedule being the primary determinant of playoff entry rather than quality of the team. MLS also moves to eliminate home-field advantage by making the Conference Final a two leg affair. To compensate for that bad idea they then add a great idea by having the MLS Cup Final hosted by the highest remaining seed.
To paraphrase Jeremiah on twitter last night, it seems like every idea related to competitive format that is good was answered with a bad idea as well. Less travel is good. More regional might be good. Hyperunbalanced is bad. MLS Cup Final at highest seed good. Two leg Conference Final is bad.
Read the full press release to see just how convoluted the East schedule is going to be.
MLS Announces Competition Format for 2012Revised Format Provides Greater Reward for Regular Season PerformanceLOS ANGELES (Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011) – Major League Soccer today announced that the competition format for the 2012 regular season and MLS Cup Playoffs. Included in the revised competition format is a change with MLS Cup. Beginning in 2012, the League’s championship will be hosted by the finalist that finished the regular season with the most points in the standings. Complete details are below.CONFERENCES:· The Montreal Impact begins its inaugural MLS season as the League’s 19th team and will be the 10th team in the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference will consist of the same nine clubs as in 2011.REGULAR SEASON:· Each of the 19 MLS clubs will play 34 games, 17 at home and 17 away.o All clubs will play an equal schedule within their respective conference.Western Conference – 24 in-conference + 10 out-of-conference games:· Western Conference clubs will play each West opponent 3 times (24 games):o West clubs will play 4 conference opponents twice at home and once awayo They will play the other 4 conference opponents once at home and twice away.o The home and away games will be reversed in 2013.· Western Conference clubs will play each East opponent once each (10 games):o 5 of these will be at home and 5 will be away.o The East opponents each team faces at home and away will be reversed in 2013.Eastern Conference – 25 in-conference + 9 out-of-conference games:· Eastern Conference clubs will play 25 games against other East clubs:o East teams will play 7 conference opponents three times each (21 games) ando 2 conference opponents twice each (4 games).· Eastern Conference clubs will play each West opponent once each (9 games):o Some will play 4 at home and 5 away while others will play 5 at home and 4 away.o The West opponents each team faces at home and away will be reversed in 2013."We have established a fair and compelling format for the 2012 season," said MLS Executive Vice President Nelson Rodriguez. "This regular season will include more games between regional rivals and less total travel than we have seen in recent years. Because of the wide geographic distribution of MLS clubs, this structure should improve the quality of play, while continuing to give every club an equal chance of qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs."MLS CUP PLAYOFFS:· 10 clubs will qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs – the top five in points from each conference at the end of the regular season.o The 4th- and 5th- place teams will play a single knockout game, the winner of which will advance to the Conference Semifinals and face the 1st-place team in the conference.o The Conference Semifinals will be decided by a two-game, aggregate-goal format (same as 2011).o The Conference Championships will be decided by a two-game, aggregate-goal format (change from recent years).o MLS Cup will be hosted by the finalist that finished the regular season with the most points in the standings.SCHEDULE FOOTPRINT:· The 2012 MLS regular season will begin in March and end in October; specific dates to be announced at a later date.· The 2012 MLS regular season schedule will be announced prior to early February, when it has been announced in recent years."The MLS Cup Playoff format in 2012 gives increased reward to clubs that fare well in the regular season and removes the possibility of clubs winning the opposite conference championship," Rodriguez said. "Having a competitively-determined site for MLS Cup is one of the most exciting improvements our Board of Governors has adopted. We believe this provides every club a tremendous incentive during our regular season and ensures a festive and boisterous setting for our championship game."