Once we have our conferences established, what competitive structure should we implement? Do we want to keep playoffs? If so, how many teams do we allow into the playoff bracket? Speaking of playoff brackets, should we have two-leg or single-leg competition, and how long should the playoffs take?
ANSWER: Split season similar to Liga MX, but modified.
ANSWER: Yes, keep playoffs, and allow 16 teams to compete.
ANSWER: Two-leg competition, with exception to the Final.
ANSWER: Three and a half weeks to complete the playoffs.
Here is where things get fun everybody!
Liga MX uses a unique setup for their soccer season. They have two separate seasons called: Apertura (meaning “Opening”) and Clausura (meaning “Closing”). Each season is then followed by a playoff between the 8 best clubs from the season. The winners of each season’s playoff then play each other at year’s end to determine the league champion. When I first looked at possibly adopting a two season system, I was intrigued because I felt that it would fit absolutely perfectly into MLS’s Feb-Nov schedule that has otherwise been such a headache to coordinate with FIFA international breaks. I was right (discussed in Part 3), but more importantly, when I started to really play with the possibilities of such a setup, the idea took on a life of its own and became the motivation for writing this article in the first place.
NOTE: Discussing league structure in paragraph/discussion form can be challenging. I’ve provided diagrams to better illustrate my ideas. Also, while a determination of the proper “number of clubs” is still to be discussed. For purposes of explanation, let’s assume a total of 38 clubs, split between two conferences. It demonstrates the MAXIMUM number of clubs that would satisfy my proposed competitive structure.
The first season would be The MLS Conference Championships. The previously established Eastern and Western Conference clubs would play each other ONE TIME EACH. Under a 38 club league, that would constitute an 18 match season, and it allows for an equal number of both home and away matches. The season would begin in the second weekend of February; warm climate clubs or clubs with closed-roof stadiums would host the first 2-3 matches of the season to avoid the extreme cold weather that neither players nor fans enjoy. In order to rotate home fixtures between given clubs, schedules would alternate each year in the same way that our non-conference play does currently – for example, Atlanta would play at NYRB this year and NYRB would play in Atlanta the following year. While this does not accommodate a “Home & Away” format, it allows you to play every single club within the conference by mid-season break. In comparison to unequal conferences, or unequal schedules, or overly narrowed divisions, I felt “Home & Away” was the least essential facet of competitive integrity, especially when it would be flipped each year. Ultimately, I’d prefer to sacrifice Home & Away scheduling to ensure I see a greater variety of opponents each season.
The second season of the year would see the conference tables from the first season split in half, so as to regroup the best performing clubs from each conference together and the worst performing clubs from each conference together. These new groupings would provide the structure for the second MLS season: The Shield Championship and MLS Cup Qualification, respectively. In a league of 38 clubs, the best 19 clubs would compete in the Shield Championship, while the worst 19 clubs would compete in MLS Cup Qualification. Points do not carry over between seasons. Since you can’t divide 19 clubs evenly the best 10th place conference finisher will be placed in the Shield Championship. You can determine this either by point total (simplest/preferable) or by single game playoff (most equitable).
The second season would see the newly grouped clubs again play each other ONE TIME EACH. The benefit is that you guarantee the best possible matchups, regardless of conference, for an entire second season competition. The best performing club in The Shield Championship table would win the Supporters Shield. Most importantly, as every club in the grouping will have played the same opponents the same number of times, the Supporters Shield can represent a true “best regular season” championship trophy without any disputed caveats. Simultaneous to the Shield Championship, the lesser performing 19 clubs from the Conference Championship season would play each other one time each in a MLS Cup Qualification season. These second season formats would likewise be 18 matches long, and constitute a total of 36 “regular season” matches in a given year, regardless of which grouping a club competes in.
If we look at the current MLS structure, this proposed system is basically what happens every season anyway. At the half way point, the top half clubs are “in the hunt” for the Supporter’s Shield, while the bottom half are simply hoping to make the playoffs. The proposed two-season system embraces those realities and gives those narratives greater focus and structure, but in doing so it also provides better matchups and better drama.
There are other elements of the Shield Championship and MLS Qualification tables that are particularly important. At the end of the season, the top 16 clubs of the Shield Championship will be seeded according to their position in the table. The top 8 seeds automatically qualify for MLS Cup Playoffs. Seeds 9 through 16 will host Decision Day single elimination play-in matches against the top 8 clubs from MLS Cup Qualification. (Seeded 17-24). I can’t speak for everyone, but I think this would be an incredibly exciting match-day scenario to end the regular season. MLS would televise 8 consecutive elimination matches in a single day, starting at 11am EST and finishing at 10pm PST (split between national & regional channels). Yes, if it is on Saturday you compete with NCAAF; if it is on Sunday, you compete with NFL. However, between FOX, FS1, (FS2, hopefully more prevalent in 5-10 years), and regional channels (Fox Sports South, etc), along with ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN 3, there should be sufficient broadcast space to accomplish this without preventing those channels from also airing NFL or NCAAF for that weekend. It would be March Madness(esk), and an instant success for TV ratings.
The bottom three clubs in the Shield Championship table are eliminated entirely. While this might seem a tad unfair, I disagree. It is done to ensure that clubs who know they can’t make the top 8 seeds don’t treat late season fixtures like throw-away matches in favor of resting players. Also, this creates a sort of relegation battle at the bottom of the table in addition to the battle for seeding in both groupings. If this fate seems too harsh, an alternative (but definitely not my preference) would be to assign the last three spots in the Shield Championship as seeds 22, 23, and 24, and only take the top 5 clubs from the MLS Cup Qualification table.
After the completion of Decision Day, MLS Cup would then consist of 4 rounds. The first three rounds would be 2-leg series, and the final being a single-leg match hosted by the highest seed.
EXAMPLE OF THE 2021 SEASON
SHIELD CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULING
Conference Championship scheduling is easy (or at least no harder than the normal scheduling that MLS performs already). However, in regrouping the clubs for their second seasons at least 9 conference foes get grouped in the Shield Championship together. As a result, you could see the same club host an opponent twice in same calendar year. Since its two separate seasons, and everyone has an equal number of home matches, this really does not bother me that much, and MLS could manually schedule the Shield Championship to diminish this outcome. However, I think the best approach is to use pre-established scheduling. (for instance “Schedule A” plays clubs D(H), G(A), B(A), M(H), T(H), R(A), . . . in that order, according to corresponding match weeks and midweek matchups). MLS can use pre-set schedules and then draw the contending clubs into those schedule slots. In doing so, the league can establish the second season schedule almost instantaneously, and the result would be entirely upon the luck of the draw. The one predictable element that can be incorporated into this process is that “cold climate” clubs that played on the road for the first few matches of the Conference Championships can be drawn from a specific pot of schedules to ensure they are matched into home-opener schedule slots.
While this system admittedly seems complicated at first, it is only because there are so many options to choose from in addressing smaller details. Once those details are decided it basically boils down to this: (1) Conference Championships, (2) cross-conference competition based on merit (Shield Championship), and (3) playoffs to decide a league champion. As I dove deeper into this regular season format, I noticed that there were opportunities to solve other vexing problems that MLS has faced recently.
First, as alluded to earlier, there are now two different seasons and therefore two different opportunities to host “season-opening” soccer. For the Conference Championships, which would begin in mid-February (as the league intends to do anyway), the various warmer climate clubs (or clubs with closed roof stadiums) could host the first two to three matches of the season so as to avoid extremely cold weather. In fairness, the colder climate clubs would then host the first two to three matches of the second season starting in June, so as to avoid extremely hot climates. Obviously not all cold and hot climate matches can be avoided, but this would be an effective way to avoid the most predictable times for cold weather soccer. The summer lasts through August; there is no way to not play in the heat in this country.
This would also make scheduling more convenient as it allows the league to tell various clubs in advance whether they’ll be home or away for certain matches to start the second season. This will enable tickets to be sold in advance and allow fans the ability to plan in advance. Also the timing of the season’s end and the June FIFA break will allow for additional planning time. This is demonstrated in greater detail in the “Part 3- Scheduling” portion of this article.
Starting the season on the 2nd weekend of February will provide better preparation for CCL competition. It still would not provide “mid-season” form, but it is improvement.
This structure is more flexible than any other setup. While my explanation and diagram use a 38 club league (a maximum, but still feasible number), this system can be adapted for both a 36 club league (use a 19/17 table split), and a 34 club league. Even a 34 club league in this format would provide 32 regular season matches. As I suggest promotion/relegation of four USL clubs each season (Infra), any of these numbers are possible during the course of MLS expansion. While 32 regular season matches (the minimum under my system) may seem a “tad” light, keep in mind that other competitions are on-going and Shield Championship teams are likely to be advancing in those tournaments.
This format actually takes advantage of the various FIFA international breaks and allows for reasonable scheduling each year, regardless of international competitions. (Infra).
The Conference Championship table can also serve as a basis for U.S. Open Cup qualification. I agree that MLS clubs should be involved in U.S. Open Cup earlier than the 4th Round. (props to Jason Longshore). By the 4th Round there are only a handful of USL clubs and practically no amateur or USL League 1 clubs remaining. It turns the Open Cup into a largely MLS vs. MLS affair. Clubs that fail to make the Shield Championship table can be required to participate in Open Cup starting in the 3rd Round and will have no hosting rights until the 5th Round (unless the other clubs ops-out of their hosting rights or the given club is matched with another MLS club). This will provide lower league and amateur clubs as many as 19 possible matchups with MLS opposition and will serve as major events for lower division clubs.
This format holds true to each trophy and competition already established in Major League Soccer. Conference Championship trophies can be awarded in June. The Supporters Shield takes a heightened importance and legitimacy. MLS Cup returns to a more formidable playoff format (NOT 3-4 MATCHES), and remains the determination of our league champion.
This setup rewards clubs that don’t spend the first three months of a season playing poorly (cough* … Seattle). However, it does not permanently punish clubs that struggle early, as there is ample opportunity to earn your way back to MLS Cup Playoffs, and poor early season form likely results in exclusion from the Supporter’s Shield race anyway.
Seeding from 1 to 24 rewards the top performing clubs (1-8) with two-fold benefits. First they avoid Decision Day mayhem entirely, which provides additional time for rest before the playoffs begin. Second, while I have not incorporated any “bye” rounds for top seeds, each seeded club is matched respectively with the worst remaining seeded clubs, which provides exceptionally favorable matchups. My diagram has the established seeding maintained from Decision Day onward, but you can easily reseed based on the outcomes of Decision Day matchups.
Elimination of the last three clubs in the Shield Championship avoids the “sit and wait” mentality of clubs who fall out of contention for high seeding.
Split seasons provide both a conference only competition (ensuring most all rivalries are maintained for at least one iteration each season), as well as a cross-conference competition each year that will vary from year to year so that matchups do not become too predictable or monotonous. In total, under this set up any given MLS club is guaranteed to play at least 27 of the 38 different clubs in a calendar year.
This system holds true to both the “table” purists (equal scheduling for Supporters Shield competition), as well as fans of the playoff structure.
It expands the playoffs to16 clubs (pseudo, 24 clubs) without making either number feel like it is too few or too many, in my opinion. At the same time this format ensures that no matter how badly a club performs, 3/4ths of the league is in reasonable contention for playoffs at all times, and the entire league is in contention until at least July and August. With a league of 34+ clubs, keeping every single club engaged and in contention for success without being too lenient is incredibly difficult, and impossible under most formats.
This system takes Decision Day to a whole new level and likewise does not prevent the league from holding an “everyone plays at once” type match to end the two regular seasons.
This system will see potential MLS Cup Final matchups between conference foes that were previously impossible. Likewise it will allow non-conference playoff matchups otherwise impossible under the current system, but does not prevent conference playoff matchups if the seeding dictates such. I favor variety, and I favor the parity of matchups over regional matchups.
With my setup, you get 9-10 of the most suitable matchups with non-conference opponents, and once scheduled we’d likely only have 4-5 cross-country away matchups. This would actually reduce debilitating travel. For comparison, our 2019 season has 6 western conference away trips. (SKC, VAN, RSL, SEA, LAFC, & PORT).
The name of the game is money. This format gives television broadcasters a (1) Conference Championship series to follow with two trophy presentations and major implications for half the clubs involved, (2) a Supporters Shield Championship table to follow with a trophy presentation, (3) an MLS Cup Qualification table to follow, (4) an 8 match Decision Day marathon, (5) 3 weeks of MLS Cup playoffs, and (6) two separate promotion/relegation battles (Infra). All of which have FIFA international breaks separating these major events so as to provide time to rest players and time for advertising and marketing.
My system and schedule ensure that no league matches would be played during international breaks, with exception to the “following the World Cup final” schedule that boosts rating considerably. (Part 3-Scheduling). By then most of the world’s players have returned to their clubs anyway, AND that game comes at the very beginning of a new season, thereby minimizing its impact on placement for the playoffs.
I recognize again that this system does not allow for Home & Away competition, but I simply do not rate that element over other competitive elements. I did tinker with other formats where the Shield Championship took 1/3 of the best clubs, as opposed to 1/2, and allowed a Home & Away scenario. That system has some merit, but I ultimately decided against it for the excitement that my system creates at all levels of the 38 club league.
For instance, if you only take 10 clubs into the Shield Championship (an 18 match Home and Away schedule) you pretty much have to guarantee all 10 a place in the playoffs. It could be done, but it changes the dynamic drastically in a way that I simply did not favor in lieu of sacrificing Home and Away scheduling.
If Home & Away is a crucial element to the league, there is a way to accomplish it. -- Take 36 clubs and divide them into 4 conferences of 9 clubs each. You can then play home & away Division Championships (16 match season), and then regroup the clubs into a staggered Shield Championship table and MLS Cup Qualification table. (19/17 split). Again, I think you lose more than you gain in such a scenario.
Also keep in mind, with a league this big even Divisions do not guarantee Home & Away matchups with all our favored opponents. You would not be able to play both Orlando and NYRB Home & Away unless you simply go to conference matchups only, for the ENTIRE regular season. I just don’t care to see us play NYRB twice a year at the sacrifice of not playing any western conference matchups until the MLS Cup Final, or at best, the playoffs. With my system, you are guaranteed 9 of the most suitable cross-conference matchups in a Shield Championship, and all you sacrificed was guaranteed repetitive matchups with conference foes. You can have conference Home & Away, or you can have cross-conference play during the season. With a league of 30+ teams, you cannot have both. It’s that simple.
Casual fans that are less familiar with soccer may find such an intermittent structure confusing. I don’t agree that this would be the case, and I honestly think it would be a more engaging and intriguing format for new fans. I think we drastically underestimate the savvy of American soccer fans, both new and old.
Seasons that only have 18 matches from start to conclusion may feel like a club’s momentum is cut short or interrupted. In response, I’d argue that the FIFA international break divides the two seasons and would disrupt momentum regardless.
Exceptional performance in Conference Championships is not rewarded in the Shield Championships, as no points are carried over. This is a value judgment. You can carry over the points, but you would keep the Supporter’s Shield relegated to a “disputable” regular season championship, OR you leave the points separate and there is nothing to dispute. Moreover, if you do perform exceptionally well in the Conference Championships, you get a trophy for your efforts.
The system described above is compelling at all stages for an entire 9 month calendar, evenly handed to all clubs, and ultimately pretty simple when all the smaller details are decided. Maybe it doesn’t excite everyone as much as it excites me, but I look at this setup and feel that it really is just about as perfect a system as could be reasonably implemented. Maybe Don Garber will stumble across this article and agree with me! A man can dream.
Part 3: League Size & Scheduling. . . coming soon.