Baseball stole soccer's birthright this summer. Remember when on the last day of the major league baseball season, the Rays and the Red Sox finished their games within minutes of each other, with postseason outcomes shifting rapidly? Fans were ecstatic that once-in-a-lifetime events had made for such a thrilling synchronized end to the season. Very few mentioned that the same sorts of thing happen every year in almost every first tier soccer league worldwide. In Europe and many other places, it is a given that all final-day league games kick off concurrently, adding extra thrill to races, and avoiding added advantage to late starters.
Going into this weekend, only 5 teams are already eliminated from the playoffs, and only 2 playoff teams are completely locked into their current seed. That has led to 7 games this week week that make a difference to one or both teams' playoff seeding. At least, that would be the case if all the games were synchronized. As it is, multiple Sat and Sun are likely to be far less meaningful after Thursday's Red Bulls vs Union match. On the flip side, by the time LA and Houston play Sunday, the Dynamo will have a clear indication of what a win draw or tie will mean to them; an advantage that no other club will have. Now, I'm not usually a Eurosnob that says MLS should follow every cross-Atlantic example, but in this case the old way looks like the best way. When Houston, NY, Portland, DC, and Chicago all have a chance at the last playoff spot, they should be playing at the same time.
So, why doesn't MLS play all final games at the same time? Obstacles include:
- Four time zones. Teams have certain times of day that they see as the ideal window for ticket sales. So they wouldn't want East hosts to have a cushy 7:00 kickoff, while those on the West coast have to start at 4:00.
- Three TV network contracts. So far, ESPN, FSC, and Telefutura have leaned toward have a certain day of the week that is theirs for MLS.
- Odd number of teams. Next year Montreal joins, and it seems the league will have 19 clubs until an NY2 ownership group gets its act together.
I've come up with a couple approaches that should mitigate those concerns (after the jump).
Option 1: Flex scheduling. Let the networks pick the juiciest matchups during the closing month or so, with the condition that every game with playoff implications on the final day get national, synchronized coverage. If ESPN needs to also have something that Thursday night, they can show a meaningless game like Seattle vs. Chivas. When the league is unbalanced, they could also shift the schedule so that a likely bad club get the last bye week. Base it on worst record or goal differential from the previous year. Or an expansion team.
Option 2: Alternate excluding clubs from hosting that are in the West or East time zones. just have the Central and Mountain clubs host with either the West or the East hosting the rest of the games.
Compromise: All games must be intra-conference, with West games kicking off one hour after East hosts. If everything else is too complex, just make sure clubs are playing at the same time as all of their conference foes. There would still be wildcard weirdness, but everyone could get close to a close-to-ideal timeslot.
All in all, a synchronized (or at least mostly synchronized) final day would be more exciting for fans, and thus more profitable for clubs, sponsors, and networks. What do you think?