MLS scheduling – why must it be so difficult?

Heading into this September international break, we should be looking at a dormant schedule in Major League Soccer. That’s not the case, and instead it is chocked full of fixtures. For instance, a Chicago Fire team in the mix for the Eastern Conference Playoffs gets to face a depleted Seattle Sounders team minus Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey.

In a world where most leagues break, MLS keeps churning. But that may change.

Yesterday on NBC Sports’ ProSoccerTalk site, Steve Davis divulged a plan reportedly kicked around by owners at recent meetings during the All-Star game. They are considering shrinking the league schedule from 34 games to 28 games, possibly by 2015 when the league expands to 20.

For a 20-team league, 28 is convenient with two 10-team conferences. A team plays home and away against their conference rivals, and one game against teams from the other conference.

But is this really the right move for a league looking to be one of the best in the world?

Can you make a convoluted schedule more convoluted?

MLS isn’t afraid to buck tradition. They seem to enjoy going against the good ol’ double round-robin, single table, promotion/relegation system that much of the world accepts as proper. When Portland and Vancouver entered the league in 2011, MLS decided not to expand the schedule past 34. That began the unbalanced schedule, and adding another 4 teams past NYCFC will not rectify this situation. The league has to do something.

Let’s take a look at the current predicament. 19 teams was always going to be a poor number to idle on for a few years. I’m not sure why MLS decided to table further expansion after adding Montreal, but they always seemed keen on that 20th team being a bonafide New York franchise. The schedule already gets convoluted a bit from CONCACAF Champions League and US Open Cup participation. With 19 teams, MLS also adds a necessary bye for at least one team every match weekend.

That has led to a further complication of the table. If you want to figure out who’s in the driver’s seat in a conference, good luck. On paper Montreal is best in the East on a points earned per game basis, but they could lose both games in hand they currently possess. It doesn’t get much easier as you move to deciphering the 4-7 spots. And don’t even bother trying the West, with top-of-the-table Real Salt Lake playing 4 more games to this point than Seattle. Sheesh.

What does all that have to do with scheduling? And why would moving to 28 games be a benefit?

Only 28 games? Really?

Shrinking the schedule is almost counter-intuitive to the typical soccer fan, as 34 games seems low in comparison to the 38-game gold standard for 20-team top divisions (though the German Bundesliga goes with 34 games, a product of 18 teams). Davis gave a few reasons, including the desire to not have to play during FIFA breaks. I’m not convinced that really bothers the owners at all.

Cutting back on the fixture congestion would likely make the disparity in games played less of a problem. Teams wouldn’t have to fill midweeks so often, accommodating the other competitions. It would also provide more flexibility for their cash cow, high-profile friendly events against European powers training for the new season.

Another consideration is that the league and its owners may want the playoffs & MLS Cup to mean even more. While many fans would like to see the Supporter’s Shield take on greater meaning, playoffs usually mean dollars in America. Moving to 28 games would dull the value of topping the regular season table even more. A knockout playoff for MLS Cup would be legitimized further as the true test, and theoretically could help television ratings.

We can also consider depth. MLS teams can’t afford the extra costs of harboring two separate squads of 1st-team quality. A few could, if the financial restraints weren’t in place (LA, New York, Seattle primarily). But that would be largely unsustainable in MLS at the moment. Cutting back on fixtures means less wear-and-tear for all teams, and could help fitness towards competitions such as the coveted CONCACAF Champions League.

Lastly, we always must remember that there are negotiations that are on the horizon. The owners want to keep control on things, and the threat of reducing the fixture list could be a bargaining chip at the table with the MLS Players Association. Davis didn’t include any information on whether the owners would want to force contract adjustments based on 6 fewer games, but it wouldn’t be out of the question.

As soon as MLS decided to stop expanding the schedule with 18 teams, we knew that the days of a balanced schedule were gone. With the possibility of 24 teams on the horizon, we’re never going back, and it’s going to take some creative thinking for the league to create a schedule that is reasonably fair to all. They probably won’t implement these changes, but there needs to be some work done to help make this process easier.


  1. The odd number of teams is the biggest problem with the current schedule. It’s really a 38 game schedule disguised as a 34 game schedule since each team has several off weeks during the season.

    The MLS season is about a month shorter than the EPL and plays 4 fewer games. The MLS is actually a little ahead since the EPL loses a couple of weekends with the middle rounds of the FA Cup. So once the MLS has an even number of teams and everyone can play on all of the weekends, there is no reason why the MLS can’t take off the same weekends as the rest of the world.

  2. 34 is fine by me. Maybe the expense of travel is getting to them. So its an attempt to save money. Leave things as they are. No need to expand it to too many more games as the league expands but a 34 or 36 games season is proper for a soccer league. Althoug many abroad would argue that MLS is harldy a soccer league. No reason to make their argument even stronger. Besides, more games are better for the fans. Less games drive ticket prices up. Owners need to stop relying to ticket prices as their primary sourse of income and start looking at TV. Then this nonsense will end (not to meantion quality will go up as more money pours into the league).

  3. Well once MLS gets to 24 teams we should be set with a 34 game schedule. Two divisions of 12 teams. Play each divisional foe twice (22 games). Then play one game a year against the teams from the other division (12 games). A 34 game schedule which is balanced and fair with no team getting a “bye” week.

  4. I hope the owners are not thinking about reducing the schedule so they can fit in more of those friendlies against European teams in their preseason.

  5. erik, how is a schedule where you play some teams once and others twice “balanced” or even fair? i mean the west currently looks way stronger than the east and yet in a system like this weaker eastern teams would benefit. seems the opposite of “fair”.

    • It’s how most North American sports leagues do it. This isn’t a geographically tiny country like you have in most of Europe. You compromise with your realities. We have geographic based divisions in our leagues.

      • Agreed. The longest road trip in the EPL is about the equivalent of DC and New England playing each other.

      • Yes, we’re always going to have this fundamental “Euro- vs. American” argument, unless one changes. One of the polarizing subjects in the sport.

      • I would say that the relatively few games in the MLS mitigates the need for divisions. Divisions make more sense when you play the games heavy schedule of the MLB, NBA, and the NHL. For a 30 something game schedule you have to mark up travel as the price of doing business.

      • i understand where the idea comes from and that’s just it, the scheduling isn’t made to be “fair” or “balanced”. it is made to make travel easier and bring costs down. meh. so compromise, whatever, just don’t try to tell me that it gives the best approximation of who the best team in the country is over the season.

  6. Go with a sudo balanced schedule. Home and away against conference, 1 game against other conference. 33 games for 24 teams. Travel could be scheduled to face teams in blocks to reduce wear and tear. Give a 2 week break in summer for ASG/friendlies and use FIFA dates as breaks. Some bye weeks could be creatively scheduled too.

  7. Given that MLS execs thought 19 teams and an unbalanced schedule was the best way to go, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did this, but it doesn’t make sense with 24 teams being the end goal, unless they plan on regaining those games as teams add. It should not be anywhere near as complicated as MLS execs seem to make it. Get 20 teams, bump salary cap and min, and expand rosters. Balance the schedule and have teams play away in blocks. then expand in groups of 2. The 22 team season would be home/away each conference, then once against other for a total of 31 games. 24 teams would be same set up and give 33 games. With USOC and CCL that’s a good mix. Start season a little earlier, focus on games in warmer climates if need be and run it a little later. Have a 2 week break for ASG and summer friendlies (maybe on international dates, they’re just friendlies after all) and dont schedule on FIFA dates. That may mean more congestion in some weeks, but teams will have breaks in the summer, on FIFA dates, and some intelligently scheduled bye weeks.

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    I know the MLS cities are spread out across our country and Canada. It’s not as easy to travel… I get it. I just don’t understand why we as a league insist on doing things different. 19 teams = 18 x 2 = 36 total games. Why so tough?! I get the other competitions but if other countries can schedule it, why can’t we? Once we get to 24 teams I can see splitting the league and switching the schedule but for now just do it right. I love MLS and I want to see it prosper but the constant changing and always being different is not going to make us a top league in less than a decade.

    • Mountainhawk says:

      Double round robin isn’t “right”. It’s a way of doing things, but it’s not the only way. 38 games is a 12% increase in the number of games. Would the players all get 12% raises? How about the stadium staff? What would happen to season ticket renewals if prices shot up by 12% in one year?

      It’s not as simple as just doing it a certain way because countries smaller than many US states do it that way.

  9. This is a ploy, I feel, for the bargaining table. If MLS wants to compete for international attention and be among the world’s best they have to at least be comparable in some aspects, one of those would be the number of games. I have no problem with 24 teams and I think the division alignment is the way to go. 34 games is the perfect solution with 24 teams (22 div, 12 non-div). The easiest fix for schedule “congestion” and competition fairness would be to pile long travel games together and stretch the season a bit. Starting the season in February would be fine if you have northern teams play road games for the first 2 weeks, such as Montreal in Dallas and Chicago in Houston etc, then they swap games (MON-HOU, CHI-DAL). Those teams could train in Florida or Arizona or wherever and then go right to those games, almost as an extended preseason. More home games in the summer and later in the season would be the benefit for the sacrifice. The other ways would be to pile travel games together, such as NY and Philly traveling to the northwest and playing one team Saturday then swapping for Wednesday. It would reduce the times the team would need to travel, and the reward for the 3-games-in-8-days sacrifice would be a FIFA break, or at the very least a bye week in summer or fall when fatigue sets in. The league is very “creative” with their salaries and play acquisition methods yet they can’t seem to figure out a schedule. That’s the most important issue right now, as it needs to be fair at the least and competitive and intriguing at best.

  10. MLS and American Soccer please give me these 2 Conference East & West 20 Clubs each. That should be 40 regular season matches to be played on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays. Every Clubs in the conference plays twice one Home one Away against each Club in the conference. The Club with best overall record for the season out of both Conferences wins a Supporters Shield they get the Silverware and cash prize for Club and players get bonuses tie determined by one match playoff.
    After regular season the Top 6 clubs from each conference get enter into Playoff Tournament 2 Groups of 3 from each conference with the best 2 teams of each group moving into the knockout rounds of the Tournament until only 1 Club from each conference remains to meet to decide League Champion and earn the MLS CUP cash prize for Club and players get bonuses.. West and East don’t meet until League Championship match. That’s 80 regular season matches the Playoff Tournament adds another 12 in the group stage. Add another 6 in the Knockout stage, then the Final in the Championship match. For a total 99 viewable matches for MLS. The Teams listed below is a mix of MLS,NASL, and USL-Pro. Also a few place that have noted they want a pro-soccer team. Just a thought.

    Eastern Conference
    1. Chicago Fire
    2. Columbus Crew
    3. D.C. United
    4. Detroit*
    5. Montreal Impact
    6. New England Revolution
    7. New Jersey RED BULLS
    8. Philadelphia Union
    9. St. Louis *
    10. Nashville*
    11. Toronto FC
    12. New York FC
    13. Atlanta Silverbacks*
    14. Carolina Rail-Hawks*
    15. Miami /Ft Lauderdale Strikers *
    16. New York Cosmos*
    17. Tampa Bay Rowdies *
    18. Ottawa Fury FC*
    19. Indianapolis Eleven*
    20. Orlando FC*
    Western Conference
    1. Chivas USA
    2. Colorado Rapids
    3. FC Dallas
    4. LA Galaxy
    5. Portland Timbers
    6. Real Salt Lake
    7. San Jose Earthquakes
    8. Seattle Sounders FC
    9. Vancouver White Caps
    10. Houston Dynamo
    11. FC Edmonton *
    12. Minnesota United FC *
    13. San Antonio Scorpions *
    14. Phoenix *
    15. Las Vegas *
    16. Sporting Kansas City
    17. San Diego *
    18. Sacramento *
    19. Calgary *
    20. Winnipeg *

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