The 2011 MLS schedule is out, and the only thing more predictable than people making jokes at its lateness is the cries of unfairness that seem to emanate from every corner of the league. Without question, fans of virtually every team can find something to be upset about, whether it's the number of games their team plays in a given month, how many games their team will play on short rest or how many of chances they'll have to watch their team on national television.
This isn't to say these fans don't have anything worth complaining about, but I was curious how much unfairness the schedule really had. I broke down each team's schedule by weekday games (which can have a negative effect on attendance), games currently scheduled for national broadcast (I included both ESPN and Univision games) andgames played on less than five days rest. I also looked at how many roadtrips each team is scheduled to take of at least three games and which teams have the longest roadtrips.
I attempted to come up with a system that would tell us which team was most put out by the scheduling process, but I couldn't really figure out a way to make that work. Instead, I'll simply share my findings by category.
No team plays fewer than four weekday games and none of them play more than eight. For the most part, the league seems to have limited the number of weekday games any team has to host to four, with only the Portland Timbers (six) and Sporting Kansas City (five) hosting more than that. In both cases, there are some extenuating circumstances. Two of the Timbers' weekday games are actually on Friday night, which shouldn't be that big of a problem. Kansas City's home schedule is pretty much shoe-horned into the final two-thirds of the season as their first 10 games of the season have to be played on the road because their stadium won't be finished.
Who has it worst?: No team really seems to get it too bad here. The worst drawing teams are also spared too many weekday home games, as FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes each host one weekday game and two of the three weekday games the Colorado Rapids host are on Fridays.
RSL Soapbox took particular issue with the inordinate number of ESPN games the New York Red Bulls, LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders have. Those three teams will appear a combined 19 times on either ESPN or ESPN2, while the last three MLS Cup winners (Columbus Crew, Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids) will combined to appear three times. Without getting too deep into that debate, I felt it was more accurate to count the number of games each team is currently scheduled to appear on national TV (which would also include the games on Telefutura and Galavision).
Even using the more broad definition of national TV, there's still a significant discrepancy, although a different kind. The Red Bulls are on 13 times, or the equivalent of more than a third of their games, and that's before the third national broadcast partner has been announced. The Chicago Fire and Galaxy are next in line with 11 national TV appearances, followed by the Houston Dynamo and Chivas USA, who each have 10. No other team will be on more than six times. Also worth noting, FC Dallas, the Rapids and Real Salt Lake are on a total of 11 times once the Spanish-language broadcasts are considered. The Sounders are not scheduled for any non-ESPN national broadcasts.
Who has it worst?: The only team that really seems to get ignored once the metric is expanded is the Columbus Crew, who aren't currently scheduled for a single national broadcast. Once the Spanish-language broadcasts are considered, it seems pretty obvious that the teams in the biggest markets (especially with the bigger Hispanic populations) are the teams on national TV most. If anything, this seems to show the league's willingness to work with their TV partners' preferences. Also worth noting: The Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC only have two national broadcast appearances between them, but they both appear 13 times on TSN, which has the Canadian broadcast contract.
Games Played With Less Than 5 Days' Rest
Playing on short rest is simply a part of life in MLS, and I hesitated to even put this in here because the reality is many of these teams will play in other tournaments that will create even more "rest" issues. That said, before we even know the CCL and U.S. Open Cup schedules, every team is already guaranteed to play at least five matches on less than five days' rest. The team with the fewest "short-rest" games, the Sounders, will also be playing in CCL and U.S. Open Cup.
Sporting Kansas City is currently scheduled to play 11 matches on five days' rest, but again that's a product of having to backload their schedule. No other team is scheduled to play more than nine MLS matches on less than five days' rest from their previous MLS match.
Of the teams scheduled to play nine matches on short rest, Toronto and Vancouver are the only two that have a chance to play in more than one non-MLS tournament. If one of them wins the Voyageurs Cup and gets a berth into CCL, they'll have some interesting issues. Of the teams already qualified for this year's CCL competition, none of them have more than seven matches scheduled on short rest.
Who has it worst?: RSL is going to be busy, there's no question about that, especially if they beat the Crew in the CCL quarterfinals. The Lions have eight MLS games less than five days from their previous MLS match. If they end up making a deep run in the Open Cup, it could get even crazier.
Long Road Trips
The league obviously made an attempt to make sure no team was too adversely affected by long road trips. No team is on the road for three consecutive games more than twice and just five teams have a single road trip longer than three matches. The longest trip of the season is KC's 10-gamer to open the season and Chivas USA is the only other team with a road trip as long as five matches. Three teams (the Crew, FC Dallas and the Sounders) are never on the road longer than two matches and the Timbers and Rapids are the only teams with as many as two three-game road trips.
Who has it worst?: This is probably the area where the league has the most control and it has obviously made an attempt to be as fair as possible. Maybe fans of the Rapids and Timbers will take issue with having to twice go on the road for three games, but neither team has a particularly rough road on their three-game roadies. Just one of the six teams the Rapids will play on those road trips made the playoffs last year and just two of the six teams the Timbers play on those road trips made the playoffs last year.
The Big Picture
The only area where there seems to be preferential treatment is in the number of games on national TV. There's no denying that the Red Bulls are being featured a lot, but it's hard for me to be surprised by this. They have some of the biggest names in the league and play in the biggest market. It's also not surprising that the Spanish-language broadcasters want to have games featuring teams with large Hispanic populations. It's also worth pointing out that we don't have a complete picture of the national broadcast schedule since we've yet to hear an announcement on the third partner. The only team that really seems to be getting shut out is the Crew, we'll have to see if that eventually gets addressed.
If there's one game that jumps out as unfortunate, though, it would probably be the Rapids-RSL game on April 13. That has been a good rivalry and is one of the few venues in reasonable driving distance for fans of both those teams, and it seems a waste to hold it on a Wednesday. Looking at the schedules, the scheduling of the game would appear to be an attempt to give RSL some rest for a potential CCL finals trip to Mexico on April 19.
The other scheduling issues really seem to be much ado about nothing. Taken individually, almost every team can find problems. But looked at as a whole, there's hard to see any patterns of preferential treatment or mistreatment.