Settling all MLS dilemmas in one easy fix (maybe)

The big issues coming out of MLS Cup weekend, among the media and the hard-core supporters (most of whom are “media” in some sense, even if it’s just a prolific Twitter habit) were:

1. This game is ending far too late. Fans are leaving, and no one’s going to make deadline. And maybe they should revisit the whole neutral-site idea, anyway.

2. 10 teams in the playoffs next year? Really?

3. Hmm, the league is considering the formation of a committee that would study the idea of forming a task force to do an in-depth look into asking its competition committee to weigh the prospects of “changing to the international calendar.” (The “international” calendar, of course, means “Western Europe’s calendar.”)

4. Hey, cool, I didn’t know your book was out! Can I get it on Kindle?

Simple issues first: I’m inquiring into issue #4, and the game simply needs to be played earlier. No MLS Cup final should kick off at 8:55 p.m. on a Sunday night. It’s too late. Possibly too cold. The ideal time, particularly if the game is on an NFL Sunday, is probably 6:30 or 7. People can flip over to MLS after the afternoon NFL games, then flip to the Sunday night game when the soccer’s done. Families can attend the game and still have a chance of getting home to get some sleep before work or school the next day.

But should MLS Cup stay in November? Here’s one suggestion surely doomed to fail:

– To meet FIFA’s insistence on playing within the “international calendar,” split the season into a fall Apertura and spring Clausura like so many Latin American leagues. (The wise man they call The Perfesser agrees.) But these won’t quite be your traditional Apertura and Clausura (in part because the calendar and the number of teams simply won’t allow it).

– The Apertura winner earns the right to host MLS Cup the following summer. MLS will still have months to plan a big event with all the attendant conventions (supporters, retailers, sponsors, club execs, etc.), which wouldn’t be possible if the playoffs went to the highest-seeded finalist as determined one week earlier. But the right to host the final will be earned on the field. The host team might even be playing in the game.

– Here’s one trick: To let everyone play a balanced schedule in the Apertura, we have to split the league into two 10-team conferences. The Apertura will be 18 weeks, from early August to late November — typically the best MLS months for attendance. (Yes, TV windows are minimal, but we’ll have to make do with Thursday night games through the Apertura and then stress the Clausura for TV.)

– So how will we know who wins the Apertura and hosts MLS Cup? That will be the first game of the Clausura, which runs 10 weeks from early March to mid-May, and features only interconference games. We’ll start with a bang by pairing the Apertura conference winners to determine the Cup host. The host city still has a couple of months to prepare.

– Records are cumulative. They don’t reset for the Clausura. After 28 games, everyone will have played each team in its conference twice and each team in the other conference once.

– The playoffs will usually run four weeks using the modified Aussie rules system I’ve already put forth. The top four seeds are the Apertura winner, the top team in each conference and the team with the next-best record. Then we have four wild cards.

(Option B has six teams: The Apertura champ and team with top overall record in a four-team modified Aussie rules playoff, with four wild cards playing off to reach that round. Option C: Go straight to four teams.)

Oh, that 10-team playoff format? Forget it. If you’re taking a winter break and summer break, you don’t have time to play all those games.

In fact, in World Cup years, you don’t have time for playoffs at all. Go straight to MLS Cup.

So in simple terms, without all the argumentation: It’s a 28-game season with an 18-game Apertura played all within the conferences. The conference winners face off in the first game of the Clausura for the right to host MLS Cup, and then you have playoffs as described above.

Nothing’s perfect. The Clausura start and Apertura championship game take place during college hoops conference championship week, and it won’t help to move it 1-2 weeks in either direction. CONCACAF Champions League teams play 24 games in the 18 weeks of the Apertura. (The good news: If they get to the knockout rounds, the schedule is a little easier during the skimpier Clausura.)

But this maximizes many things the league would like to accomplish:

  1. Balanced schedule, more or less.
  2. Many teams involved in playoff chase.
  3. Time to plan MLS Cup and attendant conventions.
  4. Incentive to win right to host MLS Cup.
  5. Playoff system that spreads out a lot of home games.
  6. Winter break to avoid freezing.
  7. Ballyhooed “international calendar.”

Have at it.

For further reading: Brian Straus’ group-stage playoff suggestion and Paul Kennedy’s argument in favor of a fall-to-spring season, complete with the suggestion to phase it in during the 2014 World Cup year.

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