MLS is considering reducing its regular-season schedule to 28 games, according to a report in Pro Soccer Talk. The idea comes to light just as the league is preparing to a play a full slate of games during yet another supposed international break, meaning key players will be missing key games. This situation is likely to repeat itself in October.
Part of the thinking, according to the report, is that reducing the schedule by six games would allow for more flexibility without having to move a bunch of games to midweek. It would also allow for the league to schedule around things like CONCACAF Champions League. These are reasonable goals.
While there were no hard details as to when, exactly, this move is being contemplated, it does seem to be tied to New York City FC joining the league in 2015. With 20 teams, a 28-game schedule would also allow for division opponents to play each other once at home and out-of-division opponents being played once each.
The reporting on this story seems solid enough, but the deeper you dig into the motives, the less it seems to make sense.
The symmetry would seemingly only be an added bonus, though, as the league has also made it clear that it intends to expand to 24 teams by 2020. Coming up with anything resembling a balanced schedule with 21, 22, 23 or 24 teams would be almost impossible while playing a 28-game schedule. Either teams would have to play division rivals just once or teams would simply not play each other every season, something that hardly seems ideal in a league where marketing visiting players remains a staple. Do fans in Salt Lake want to wait as long as three years to see whatever big names are playing for the Red Bulls or NYCFC (in a 24-team league, teams might only play each other every other year and visit each other every four years)?
It also seems strange to hold off until 2015 to implement this schedule would also seem to miss out on a major reason to do it: Making room for a proper World Cup break. With no World Cup qualifiers in 2015, there are fewer important international dates.
There's also the reality that reducing the schedule to 28 games would also cut the number of home games each team plays by 18 percent. Why would the league be so worried about revenue loss by playing more midweek games, but not be as concerned about losing as much or more money by simply playing fewer total games?
As Steve Davis brings up in the story, there's also the concern that TV executives might not be so keen on paying more money and having fewer "big" games to choose from. As it is now, there are three Portland Timbers-Seattle Sounders games on national TV, there's at least one LA Galaxy-Red Bulls game and there would be three Red Bulls-NYCFC games.
And none of this even starts to address the very real message that this sends: The MLS regular season just isn't that important. Presumably, this is also part of a plan that would eventually expand the playoffs. If MLS were to bring the total playoff field to 16 teams (hopefully not until there at least 24 in the league), that would require an entire new round of the playoffs. Suddenly, we're looking at a Supporters' Shield winner needing to play three two-game series just to earn the right to play for the championship.
At this point, it's time to admit that we're probably getting a bit too far ahead of ourselves. If the root of this discussion is really that MLS is looking for ways to avoid playing on international dates, that's a good thing. If it were a one-year solution designed to give teams a real month-long break for the World Cup, you'll get no complaints here.
Whatever happens, though, it needs to be part of a more holistic view. We can all agree that the MLS schedule can be improved upon, but simply hacking it hardly seems to be a solution that would be in the league's longterm interests.