MLS

Brrrrr…MLS Cup Final needs a different date, one way or the other

Eight months and a few days — that’s the amount of time it took from the first kick in March until Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City squared off in the frozen hinterlands in Saturday’s MLS Cup Final. Lovel Palmer’s final penalty attempt clanged off the crossbar on a wintry Midwestern evening, and Kansas City celebrated their first MLS Cup title since their re-brand before the 2011 season.

The home crowd was certainly final-worthy, but the play was not as good. This was partly due to one of the teams involved (SKC), but more due to the frosty conditions that made pretty football a tough ask.

At the end of 2011, Major League Soccer announced that the venue for the 2012 MLS Cup Final would be determined by the table position of the two combatants. Last year, the Galaxy proved the higher-seeded participant, and this seemed like a glorious plan. Through the adoration over a second consecutive final involving pristine weather and a legend named Beckham, the murmur in the background was dull but audible: “But what if it’s not Los Angeles next year?”

Voila. And while the 2013 final’s finish was entertaining, the play throughout was less than thrilling. Undoubtedly the conditions played a part.

December finals aren’t cutting it

Kansas City, Kansas isn’t exactly Siberian in climate. Neither is Harrison, New Jersey, where a 2012 playoff match between the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United was postponed due to blizzard conditions. Yet these regions are all subject to their share of snow in normal years.

But let’s pull out the real problem in this mess — the MLS Cup final has sunk deeper and deeper into winter. For whatever reason, MLS has decided to tempt Mother Nature with a Final that sits a full week into December.

Garber made an excellent decision to hold the Final at the higher seed’s home stadium. Now there needs to be another decision.

The Final needs to take place earlier

While a November snow postponed that NYRB/DCU match last year, clearly your chances of hitting bad weather would decrease if you schedule the final before Thanksgiving.

One way to fix that is to condense your league schedule. The trouble with playing 2-3 more midweek matches would be more conflicts with the US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League, which could further jeopardize MLS teams’ ability to compete in those other competitions.

Another would be to trim down the playoff structure. Too many teams make the playoffs at the moment. By my estimation, if this season had seen an 8-team playoff, MLS Cup could have been played on November 23rd, the weekend after the FIFA International Break.

Switching the calendar

There are two other options such as starting the season earlier or changing the calendar entirely.

If you begin the season in early-to-mid February, you’re starting in the middle of winter, rather than ending it as the cold season is beginning. There would probably be some rescheduled matches, and perhaps these could be worked around. But who wants to begin a season with the specter of postponements interfering with the exuberance that ought to mark the start of a new season?

Of course at that point, you aren’t that far off from the fall-to-spring calendar that much of Europe uses.

No matter how you try to fix this problem, you’re probably going to face some winter matches. MLS needs to figure out how to limit the number of playoff matches that face inclement weather. The solution, whenever it comes, will probably be some combination of the changes listed above, namely starting a week earlier, using more midweek dates, and trimming the playoffs down to 8 teams.

17 Comments

  1. Why was there a 2 week gap between the conference finals and MLS Cup? I understand the pause for the international date, but because of the international date and this gap the teams played 2 games in 1 month.

  2. MLS needs a better scheduling staff, period. The 2012 regular season was terribly scheduled. A home-and-away for Columbus and NE to end the season, after they had played once the whole year? An away game for the Union at Chicago, then a home game 7 days later–but with another game in between for the Union, but not Chicago? Shocking stuff.
    .
    Our post-season was fouled up because our season was fouled up. Had MLS scheduled just 1 more midweek game (or 1 fewer week off) for every team at some point throughout the season, our post-season schedule could have fit perfectly with the international calendar. Did they not see the FIFA dates coming last year?
    .
    On a different note, this home-and-away playoff series thing is not working. Maybe it makes good money at the gate, but for the casual fan, it’s too much to ask us to watch the same teams play twice. Getting rid of the extra games would condense the post-season schedule by a week or two, as well.

    • i’m not defending the mls schedule because i also feel like they could do a much better job planning it out to avoid international dates and playoff gaps, but i kind of liked when teams played each other back to back. i wouldn’t want the whole season to work that way but it was interesting to see from time to time

    • I like the home and away series. The only FIFA structure that works for this league…if you think 2014 sucked wait until 2015 with 21 teams and 19 home games, US Open cup and CCL.

  3. Having an even number of teams would go a LONG way towards fixing things. Currently, either one team is off every week or someone has to play midweek and the weekend against a team who didn’t have to play midweek. By having an even number of teams this can be eliminated and the season can be condensed by about 2-3 weeks.

    • I agree completely, but one way around that would be to have 3 or 5 teams off on certain weekends, then have those teams play midweek matchups as well the following weekend
      For example:
      Saturday: AvsB, CvsD, E, F & G off.
      Wed: EvsF, GvsA,
      Saturday: BvsE, CvsF, DvsG.
      Everyone plays two games in that span, so no one has a real disadvantage, and in this case A would have the 2nd weekend off, which could give them extra rest for a potential CCL matchup the following Wednesday. Either way they still play 2 games over the course of 8 days, just like everyone else.

      • That sort of works. The problem is that on Wednesday, A has to play on 3 days rest while G has had 10 days off. Likewise on Saturday, B hasn’t played in a week while E is playing with only 2 days off. Compare that with the Premiere League where everybody plays between Saturday and Monday except on very rare occasions (Super Cup, teams still in the later rounds of the FA cup, etc.). Similar one offs can be made for late rounds of CCL or Open Cup like the Union did when RSL was in the CCL finals a few years ago.

  4. So step one, as J.R. said, is to get rid of that extra week between the conference final and championship game. The NFL does it because they’re a marketing machine and the extra week can be used to build hype, with 24/7 coverage of the game, reviewing the season, etc. MLS doesn’t have this, and probably never will. Axe that week.
    .
    We can also fix the playoff schedule. The playoffs can be done in an amazingly fun fashion (in my opinion) in just four weeks. Take the top four teams from each conference; split them into two groups. Group A has East 1, West 2, West 3, and East 4; Group B has West 1, East 2, East 3, and West 4.
    .
    During week one of the playoffs, the groups play a round-robin against each other, just like a World Cup group. Game one on Saturday, Game two on Wednesday, Game three on sunday. The top seed gets three home games; the second seed gets two; the third seed gets one; the fourth needs to work harder to get a better spot next year; they’re gonna travel a lot this year.
    .
    Top two teams from each group advance. A1 plays B2 and B1 plays A2. This is a home-and-home series. I don’t care if you go with road goals for the tie breaker or just step right into shootout. Whatever. doesn’t matter. These games are a week apart, with the first game coming a week after the group stage ends. The higher seed gets the second home game (so that if it comes down to needing a shootout to decide it, they get to have their crowd behind them). Winners go to the final.
    .
    The final is played a week after the second leg. Play at the stadium of the highest seed.
    .
    So, you have only 8 teams making the playoffs instead of th current ten, which makes it a bit more rare (and also prevents more than half your league making the playoffs). Every team gets at least three playoff games, with the two teams in the final getting a six each. Higher seeded teams get rewarded with more home games, so less travel. The whole thing is done in 4 weeks worth of game time (though maybe you need to schedule a break for international games, depending where it falls.
    .
    There’s a more interesting playoff structure, with fewer teams, and a chance for the top two teams to face off even if they’re in the same conference.
    .
    The schedule gets fixed once they have an even number of teams. While you wait, Brian has the solution with his rolling off-day schedule where all those teams play twice in a week, just at different points in the week. Once you have an even number of teams, the schedule makers need to find ways to compress a bit. One way to do that is to have “rivalry” weeks through the season. You’ll use these to get your mid-week games in place without making travel a hassle. Saturday or Sunday, you play a team near you; Wednesday you play another team near you; Saturday or Sunday you play a third team near you. Three games in a week for everybody, nobody has ridiculous travel such as having to play LAG on a Wednesday. Squeeze a couple of those into your schedule while making sure to work around USOC and CONCACAF games, and you should be able to have a 32-34 game season *and* the four week playoff *and* honor all the international dates.

    • While an interesting idea, I don’t think the league would go for it. What happens when New England finishes 4th in the East and has to pay to fly to Seattle, LA, and Miami without the benefit of a home gate? They may just say it’s not worth the expense and not bother to go. Meanwhile, when Seattle and LA get out of that group after having both had to fly to Miami, they now have to fly to Houston and KC who survived the group of Houston, Dallas, KC, and Colorado. Not quite equitable travel…

      • Bah! Don’t go raining on my parade that I spent all of five minutes thinking up! 😉

      • As far as making the travel equitable, the carrot for playing well during the season is the home field advantage through the playoffs. Further, no team is going to say “no, the expense to travel is too great. Sorry, we won’t participate in the playoffs – even though we receive more allocation money for the following season.” Plus, there’s always the stand by of “Life isn’t fair. Do better next season if you don’t want to travel.”

    • This is a pretty neat idea, i think i like it

    • As long as the championship game is played at the venue of the highest seed, I don’t think MLS will shorten the run-up from two weeks to one week. I’m sure the argument is that the championship venue needs the extra week to sell tickets, away fans can book hotels and airfare, press events can be scheduled, etc., etc. I bet this suggestion is a no-go from a business / logistics prospective.

      • I think that’s a great point. There might be opportunities to have some arrangements already begun with the 2 or 3 Conference Finalists who would be eligible to host a final – for all we know, that may already happen.

        One would hope that a true sellout would happen in any city hosting a final (barring cavernous Gillette Stadium in Foxboro). That may be assuming too much, though.

  5. As much as I like reading the comments, Don Garber said at halftime it’s not if, but when we switch to the European schedule. I think a final in May will be great!

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