How many matches is “too many” for a regular season? How many matches is “too many” in light of the other domestic and international competitions that occur throughout the year? How many matches are too few?
30 regular season matches is the bare minimum. 38 matches is the absolute maximum that our calendar could accommodate.
This question does not require nearly as much discussion. (I can hear my readers’ sighs of relief).
With 30 teams, under the format I’ve suggested you would have conferences of 15 teams each and only have a total of 28 regular season matches in a calendar year. That’s too few. We have all grown accustom to having a 34 match season, and I seriously doubt MLS would consider reducing that number by more than a couple of matches. Perhaps this number would give the league the ability to host more international tournament type fixtures, as it seems keen to do. Also, as 30 teams is the already established goal for MLS, it leaves no room for the league to consider further expansion or promotion/relegation.
With 32 teams, we have 30 total matches. That’s better, and probably represents the bare minimum the league would settle upon. It is still not ideal though. To exercise the full system discussed above the playoffs bracket would likely have to be altered as there simply aren’t enough teams to spread around for a 24 team bout for post-season glory. Moreover, when conferences have an even number of teams, you wind up with unbalanced home/away schedules between teams. (15 matches in a season can’t give you the same number of home and away games). This would damage competitive integrity. The likely fix is that the Conference Championships add 1 additional match (i.e. allow for home & away rivalry fixtures), and then stagger the Shield Championship table. (i.e. a 17/15 split of the teams). It’s not ideal, but its doable.
With 34 teams, we have a total of 32 matches, even conferences of 17 teams each (which allows for equal home/away scheduling), and gives a little bit of room for playoff elimination in the Shield Championship table. It also allows the league to play with how they wish to draw Decision Day competitors (8 from each league? 7/9 split? Etc). Given the MLS calendar dates available, a 34 club league is an excellent size. It is neither too few matches, nor too many such that fixture congestion becomes a burden on teams.
With 36 teams, presents the same challenges that a 32 team league creates, but does give us 34 regular season matches in the calendar year. It’s certainly workable, but still not ideal.
With 38 teams, we have 19 team conferences, balanced home and away scheduling, a total of 36 regular season matches in the calendar year, and a fantastic allocation of Decision Day teams while also having three teams fight out a playoff elimination battle in the Shield Championship table. The only down side is that fitting 36 regular season matches into the calendar is a challenge and can create fixture congestion for teams that make deep runs in CCL and/or Open Cup. It is easily one of the best options, and arguably has advantages that would make it preferable to a 34 team league. I used a 38 team league in my diagrams to demonstrate proof of concept for the largest possible option.
Once we have our competitive structure, how “in the world” do we schedule it properly in light of North American weather extremes, FIFA international dates, and most of the world operating on a differing schedule entirely?
We’ve already discussed the benefit of warm climate clubs having home matches to start the Conference Championships, and cold climate clubs having home matches in June for the start of the Shield Championship and MLS Qualifications seasons. FIFA international breaks, while generally considered a hassle, actually provide well-timed breaks throughout the season in which most MLS players can rest. These breaks also align perfectly for a two-season system.
I looked at FIFA’s website and took the FIFA calendars for 2018 through 2021 and laid out what a season would look like under this structure. I’ve taken into consideration the usual timing of CCL, US Open Cup, Campeones Cup, and the MLS All-star match.
The bottom line: Even in a 38 club league, all of the necessary matches can be “reasonably” scheduled without overlapping any FIFA friendly or tournament dates. I did not take into consideration the new tournament MLS has established with Liga MX clubs. I honestly think that this tournament should be moved to the beginning of our season so as to coordinate with the same weeks CCL are played. We will see, but with a brand new tournament – it was difficult to predict how to incorporate it with absolutely no history of scheduling.
Preferably, I would not use a head-to-head play-in match (the yellow square) for determining which 10th place team is selected for the Shield Championship. Just use the higher point total. In doing so the league can give the players an extra week of rest and the league an extra week to prepare for the second season. That extra week can also be used for make-up or rescheduled matches (if necessary), or it can simply decompress the schedule if a particular year seems too congested.
As far as scheduling is concerned for my modified “Decision Day”, it would operate much like the scheduling of our current single-leg playoff match. (For example, there were only 3 days between our 2017 match against Toronto and our playoff match against Columbus). This shows that short turnaround scheduling is manageable. Moreover, you would know with very little uncertainty which teams will be hosting Decision Day matches. Most years allow for a full week in between season end and Decision Day, 2018 would have required either a midweek season end, or otherwise compressing that match into the first week of August.
Regardless, the above schedule demonstrates that regardless of whether we are in a World Cup year, or a Gold Cup year, or a whatever year… The calendar accommodates my season structure extremely well with a league of 38 teams. Moreover, it allows MLS to maintain its current Feb/March to November scheduling. While there are some periods of fixture congestion, none of the congestion is any worse that this coming month in the current MLS season. This schedule allows a team to play EVERY SINGLE POSSIBLE GAME IN AN ENTIRE SEASON, WITHOUT CONFLICT.
Stay tuned for Part 4: PRO/REL !!!!