MLS owners approved several competition changes that will have dramatic effects on the 2012 season, the league announced on Sunday. Among the changes are a hyper-unbalanced schedule that will feature teams playing as many as three games against in-conference opponents, an additional game being added to the conference finals and the MLS Cup being hosted by the team with the highest regular-season point total.
"We have established a fair and compelling format for the 2012 season," MLS Executive Vice President Nelson Rodriguez said in the league release."This regular season will include more games between regional rivals and less total travel than we have seen in recent years. Because of the wide geographic distribution of MLS clubs, this structure should improve the quality of play, while continuing to give every club an equal chance of qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs."
While it's been known for some time that the league would go to an unbalanced schedule, but just how unbalanced is now clear: All Western Conference teams will play three games against each other, while the 10-team Eastern Conference will play three games against seven opponents and two against the other two teams. Each team will play their out-of-conference opponents once. The Montreal Impact will join the Eastern Conference, while the Western Conference will remain at nine teams.
As a nod to this unbalanced schedule, their will be five teams from each conference making the playoffs. The Nos. 4 and 5 seeds will play in a wild-card round as they did this year, with the winner going up against the conference's top seed in the conference semifinals.
Unlike in previous years, the conference finals will be two games, just like the conference semis. While this change makes some logical sense, it also diminishes the value of the regular season as it effectively eliminates home-field advantage from that round.
Perhaps because of that change, the league also decided to allow the team with the highest regular season point total will host the MLS Cup. In previous years, the final has been held at a predetermined site.