MLS / Opinion

Why is the MLS season so long?

Why does the Major League Soccer season last so long? Doesn’t it feel like it should be over already?

Maybe it’s just me. I’d like to think I’m a fairly well-rounded sports fan in that soccer is what I follow most, but I keep an eye on most everything. College football’s most dramatic weekend is coming up, NFL playoff scenarios are forming, and the NBA/NHL seasons kicked off weeks ago. After starting all the way back in March, it just doesn’t feel like the MLS postseason should still be going. Here we are about to hit December, and we don’t even know what the MLS Cup matchup is.

So, what’s the deal? MLS plays 34 regular-season matches and it takes over nine months. Compare that to leagues across the pond and things get interesting.

The English Premier League slate includes 38 regular-season matches and spans about the same amount of time. Ok, four more matches. No big deal. Except that, for bigger and more successful clubs in England, it’s much more than that. Between cup draws and European competitions like the Champions League, some players can expect anywhere from 50-60 matches per season. Now, there have been complaints over such a schedule that could include three matches in a week, but the fact is the EPL schedule has been structured like this for years and it fits far more matches in the timeframe than MLS.

Take the EFL Championship, England’s second tier, as another example. There are 24 clubs in that league and they play 46 regular-season matches, all in just about the same time as the Premier League. That means many mid-week fixtures on top of any cup competitions they may be playing in. So, an average club making a cup run in the Championship could easily play 15 more matches in a season than an MLS side. Why is that?

Some of it comes down to logistics. One thing clubs in England have going for them is every opponent in the entire league is relatively close by. Most long road trips are only a few hours on the bus and some rivals are literally right down the street. It’s much easier to play a match on three days rest if you only have a 20-minute bus ride ahead of you. That’s simply geography and, frankly, it’s a luxury.

It’s almost the opposite in MLS. Teams may need two full days out of the week just to travel across the country for a road match. That’s less rest and potentially less training and I imagine it wears heavily on clubs by the end of the season — especially because they’re flying coach. MLS is actually the only major league in the U.S. whose teams don’t take charter flights. With the exception of four allocated flights, MLS players are flying with the general public. That may be a separate issue as far as finances go, but it means MLS players are subject to flight delays and cancelations like everyone else. That could directly impact multiple clubs’ schedule.

Is there anything that can be done about teams flying over 30,ooo miles in a year? Maybe not.

The other major factor in the MLS schedule is television. Television, or money, depending on how you view it. Most MLS fixtures fall on the weekend, because that’s better for TV markets and fans everywhere. In England, it’s perfectly reasonable to have a Wednesday night match because people will attend. In the U.S., not so much. Attendance is down in a lot of MLS cities as it is. A lot of fans won’t even watch a mid-week match on TV, let alone watch it in person. Like many other sports, TV partners drive everything, and they have a huge say in when matches are played.

In short, I get all of that. I get that travel is inevitably more difficult here, and I get that MLS must work with TV partners when crafting the schedules. A lot goes into it, but that still doesn’t mean the season isn’t too long.

The NHL and the NBA, the two longest domestic sports leagues, each still have a good three and a half months off in between seasons. For MLS clubs that make it to the postseason, it’s much closer to two months off. Then training starts, and, before you know it, the ball’s being kicked around again. I understand player development, and in some cases, the less time off the better, but I’m thinking about the MLS schedule as more of a product.

The 2017 regular season ended on October 22. Why is MLS Cup on December 9? Why does it take over six weeks to crown a champion? The casual soccer fan is practically going to forget about MLS at that point. With the EPL in full swing and all the other domestic leagues going on, it’s not exactly a good time to boost TV ratings.

Last year, because of World Cup qualifying, there was a pause of over two weeks right in the middle of the MLS playoffs. Not during the regular season, where international breaks are a norm across the world, but during the playoffs — during the most important time on the MLS calendar.

Something’s got to give. FIFA will always take precedent. In fact, having players in big international matches is a good thing, but why can’t a scheduling conflict like that be avoided? Why can’t the MLS playoffs be over before November? It’s surely much easier said than done, but why not play more matches over the summer? Make travel easier on the players and play more mid-week matches from May to August. Or, to take it a step further, play less matches. Who says they have to play 34? If travel is more time-consuming than in most countries around the world, compensate for it.

As a big soccer fan, I’m far less interested in this week’s MLS conference finals than I should be. Too much time has passed. The edge is off. There’s a ton of other headlines in the sports world. Most sports fans in the U.S. don’t have soccer very high on their priority lists and if MLS wants to grow, it should have a distinct schedule that overlaps with other major sports as little as possible. Right now, it overlaps with all four major leagues.

Right now, the MLS season just feels too long.

25 Comments

  1. Also, the playoff games I’ve seen have been pretty poor. I mean, two games for Columbus and Toronto and all we get is a single goal? The playoff structure needs a complete overhaul. I think each conference champ should be the points leader at the end of the season. No need for a supporters shield. (most points between leagues isn’t the best measure given the lack of balance in the schedule, PL, for example is straight forward — each team plays all the other teams home and away.)

    Then have a short cup tournament for maybe the top 4 teams at the most in each conference. While the suggestion of a group stage is compelling, it still means the playoffs are long as hell.

    To be fair to MLS, the NBA playoffs seem to go on for years, too. Way too many teams make the cut.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      San Jose had a -21 goal differential.
      .
      …and qualified for the playoffs.
      .
      let that sink in and marinate a bit.
      .
      this doesn’t even address the life cycle of certain arthropods that exist between rounds.

  2. I think you hit on a number of points here, some that I agree with and some that I think are worth more discussion. If you shorten the playoffs, it would be easy to get down to the NHL length which ends in mid June and starts up again at the beginning of October (and their playoffs are longer, but don’t involve a 2 week break in the middle…instead they have games almost every night until near the end).
    .
    I don’t think the regular season is too long, but the post season stretches way too long, in part because of the international break. One disadvantage of taking the winter off rather than the summer is that you have international breaks each month from Sep-Nov rather than leagues that end in the spring who see no international breaks after late March. The solution to that is probably to try to end the regular season by the October break and have the playoffs between the October and November breaks. This would require some condensing of both, but only by a couple of weeks in the case of the regular season.
    .
    One thing the league could do to mitigate the travel issues would be to stop growth at 24 teams (unfortunately, the people who run the league are too greedy to do this). They could then break the interconference games into 4 blocks of Weekend/Midweek/Weekend games where everyone is playing interconference at the same time. You’d have two blocks at home and two on the road. Teams could be grouped together geographically so you are playing against all 3 Cascadia teams together rather try to fly to Seattle, Dallas, and RSL on the same trip. This would mandate 4 midweek games but in a way that is fair to both teams rather than having one team playing on 3 days rest and the other team on 7. It would also cut down on the number of cross country trips and you wouldn’t have Portland or Seattle flying cross country to Talen for a mid week game where they leave half the team at home and just sacrifice the points that game. It would still be tougher on the western teams where the travel distances are greater but at least it’s a start.

    • Your idea for blocks of games is intriguing….
      .
      So, hypothetically, the Union could fly to the west coast and have three away games in a row at LA, SJ, and Portland (potentially a Saturday-Wednesday-Sunday deal) and spend one whole week out west rather than flying out west for a Saturday game, back to Philly for a Wednesday night game, then out to Chicago for a Sunday game. Both achieve 3 games in 9 days, but one saves a lot of travel time and preserves players more

  3. I agree. They should shorten the season and make midweek games the norm and expand every team’s roster so there can be more squad rotation. I think having people more used to midweek games will also have the added effect of increasing the visibility of the open cup (they will skip midweek league games on weeks where there are open cup games)

    • You might even be able to play some USOC games on weekends like they do with the FA Cup.

      • I like both these comments. I would love to see the Open Cup get more attention.
        .
        Having more reg season mid-week games would help acclimatize the casual fan to come out more.
        .
        Having the occasional ‘Open Cup Weekend’ would get grant more exposure for the nations longest running tournament.
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        Also, there are currently 3 games after the international break (conf finals & MLS Cup).
        .
        All it would take would be to have a few more mid-week games to slide MLS Cup to either the wknd before Thanksgiving or right before the international break.

      • MLS Cup used to regularly be the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Reliable. Consistent. Done before the snows usually hit….

  4. Are they still playing?
    .
    Snark, yes. But this season is so long and the breaks between rounds so interminable that the league falls off the radar. I honestly do not care at all now about the league. Every other sport is in action, except baseball, and we’re already counting to Pitchers and Catchers.
    .
    Too long. Too many breaks. And by finishing in the middle of the NFL, College FB, NBA, NCAABB, and the NHL, the league is simply reinforcing their position as an also-ran minor league.
    .
    You can’t disappear for a month and expect to have a set of high-profile games when you already have trouble attracting a large audience.
    .
    Shorten the season. Play more midweeks. End before NBA/NHL start (early October). Stay relevant.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    Money talks. Period. And when it comes to MLS it is painfully clear they do everything for the money. Ratings and TV coverage dictate games on the weekend so that’s where they’ll be. Forget competitive integrity – playing games (championship games, mind you) in Toronto in late November, December – that doesn’t matter. Any of the several ideas laid out above would be better. I believe Wynalda said – “why do we play our most important games at the worst time, in the worst weather, during the week?” (or something close to that)… and he’s right.
    .
    I watch MLS all the time during the summer and into fall and literally I have forgotten about almost every playoff that is on so far, including last night. That is just bad that your most important games can be easily forgotten by any of your fans, let alone someone like myself, who considers himself much more than just a casual fan.

  6. Grant Wahl tackled this topic semi-recently on SI’s website.
    .
    https://www.si.com/soccer/2017/10/31/mls-playoff-format-fix-solution
    .
    His system still doesn’t end until early December – though keeping that date was one of his assumptions going into the article.
    .
    I once played around with the schedule, just because I was bored. More mid-week games was what I came up with as well. In my back-of-a-napkin system, I did that two different ways. One was “rivalry” week, where nobody had to travel very far for their games during that week. So for example, the Union might go to NYRB on Saturday, host NYCFC on Wednesday, and go to DC on Sunday. Some teams, obviously, don’t have the benefit of so many options so close together. That can be fixed by the ongoing expansion — that is, make one of the primary tenants of that process to fill “gaps” in the map.
    .
    The second thing that made sense to me was to have “travel” weeks. The Union go out west and play LA, Colorado, and Salt Lake City. The league sets up a location for them to train – which becomes a potential marketing opportunity depending on where they’re set up. Meanwhile, while the Union are out west, Seattle is playing NYRB, NYCFC, and DC. Later in the season, the Union go on a second west-coast swing and play Cascadia.
    .
    As mentioned up-stream, I think this also benefits the Open Cup. As fans get used to mid-week games over the late Spring and summer months, those games become more “normalized” on the schedule.
    .
    Put it together and I think it’s possible to end the season a bit sooner and fix the playoff format to make it more interesting, and have everything wrap up by, say, Thanksgiving. In fact, I like “Black Friday” as Championship Day for MLS. The NFL already owns Thanksgiving, so you aren’t going to draw casual sports fans that day. But Black Friday? Not much beyond various local teams (NBA, NHL, etc) going on that day.

  7. Jozy’s injured goal the other night though…

  8. I agree, I enjoy the playoffs but I almost forgot about the two conference final games because I got caught up in college football’s rivalry week and Thanksgiving. The 2 easiest solutions I see is to put the international break
    between the conference finals and MLS Cup, or hold MLS Cup over Thanksgiving – that Saturday is maybe the biggest day in college football, but Sunday has the least amount of NFL games due to 3 on Thursday and 1 on Monday, & there are only a few games on Friday, some of which might only interest a few fans – so MLS Cup starts at 8:30 on Black Friday to HUGE ratings and then we move on with our lives.

  9. Why not avoid the October international break by beginning the season earlier? Start in late January/early February instead of March and just move the entire season forward.
    .
    If they’re concerned about TV eyeballs, they only need to avoid NFL playoff games during the same time. MLS would likely only clash with NFL fans in cities where the team has yet to be eliminated. After the end of fantasy football, out of town rooting interests are eliminated. College football would be long over at this point too.
    .
    They would be going up against mid-season NBA and NHL, but neither is as exciting until playoffs anyway (particularly the NBA).

  10. I am a day late.
    .
    ROSTER SIZE. & SALARY CAP
    .
    a first team roster of much greater size with bankroll to have top quality subs for the first IX allows three games a week much better than does MLS.
    .
    As is the only time David Beckham set foot on the PPL pitch was for the All-Star game. The Galaxy never brought him otherwise.
    .
    I know I want to see the internationally renowned stars live. (See Julius Irving’s famous comment about the kid in the nosebleeds who had saved up all year to come see his heroes, etc.)

    • I’m sorry, just need to correct you. I watched David Beckham assist on a corner kick at PPL park as a member of the LA Galaxy vs the Union. The kick was terrific.

  11. phil in wilmington says:

    Begin pipe dream

    1. 30 teams, Six “Divisions”:

    Northeast (5) / Southeast (5)
    North Central (5) / South Central (5)
    Northwest (5) / Southwest (5)

    2. Change the calendar to a Clausura and Aperta with a break in the dead of winter and an off season during the summer 30 matches total. (15/15)

    3. Teams play in-division teams x2 (home and home) and 5 nearby “rivals” out of division x1. but bus-travel-close ideally.

    4. Top 2 from each division (12 total) play in a tournament more like the World Cup: 4 groups of 3, pot placement based on overall record, round robin, winner of each group advance to semis and finals, home field determined by win/loss record).

    5. While I’m dreaming… 3 relegation matches between the bottom teams (north vs. south in east west and central) … if you want to take it a step further, have an additional playoff between loser of the MLS head to head and the USL/NASL team that stands to be promoted up from under.

    Pros:
    – save on travel = increased training and decreased cost
    – emphasis on regional schedule = increased time playing regional rivals
    – aligning the schedule with Europe = get a real transfer season where players get a shot at integrating well. Summers off means no more stupid WC or Gold Cup breaks.
    -clausura/aperta – breaks up the grind of the regular season
    -relegation: USL/NASL upstarts get a chance and deadbeat MLS owners get incentive. Relegation playoffs will create real rivalries overnight (I hate that team, they sent my team down two seasons ago), and give more urgency to teams at the bottom of the table during the regular seasons.
    -new tournament format: we finally call a spade a spade and acknowledge no one really cares about the supporters shield by making the tournament how MLS crowns “the best”. Matchups that feature teams that maybe haven’t played each other all season creates a novelty and the new format makes it a better refelection of teams that deserve to be there versus teams that sneak in and get hot.

    and for those wondering, yes there is a clausura and aperta tournament… if you want you could then have a champions exhibition between the C and A teams if they are different.

    End pipe dream.

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