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MLS final weekend needs simultaneous kickoffs

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Here's a good idea for MLS consideration ... all matches start simultaneously in Round 32
Here's a good idea for MLS consideration ... all matches start simultaneously in Round 32

Also file this item under: “An idea whose time has come, yo!”

Major League Soccer concludes this weekend with eight big matches that will decide the closest MLS playoff race yet.  The soccer geeks among us have chewed on the last few weeks the way a hungry Rottweiler chews on a big ol’ rawhide bone. Woof!

As we sit here on Thursday (waiting for tonight’s lid-lifter in Chicago), seven teams remain alive for three remaining playoff spots. It’s all more delicious than a big pot of chili on the second day!

There’s only one thing that could make it all more perfect: if every match kicked off at the same time.

You may have heard of this concept before. League play and group play in tournaments frequently concludes thusly. It’s really the fairest way to ensure a level playing field for all.

What you don’t want is one club gaining an advantage over another based on a prior result. You don’t want Team A resting players against Team B because Team C altered the tiebreaker calculus.

But for the big MLS finish, we have one match tonight (Thursday), five on Saturday and then two more on Sunday. Further, the fivesome of Saturday matches kick off over three hours. So, even there, this system is flawed.

This is a great example of where MLS must move forward in prioritizing “competition” in these important decisions over “marketing concerns.” (There are, after all, sometimes jokes that the “M” in MLS stands for Marketing.)

There was a time in MLS when other issues necessarily took precedent over competition concerns. I know for some soccer or sports purists, such talk is anathema. But that’s the way it was and I believe that’s the way it had to be. It wasn’t perfect, but sometimes little trees need some support before they grow up to be big, tall trees.

Back in the league’s days of spindly roots there were two major impediments to finishing the season with simultaneous kickoffs. First, there were TV contracts to bow down to. In terms of marketing and finance dynamics, TV and sports go together like mosquitos and malaria. It is what it is, and MLS had to acquiesce to whims of the networks. So, if ESPN said “we want a game on X date at X time,” it was done.  And if Spanish-language television wanted to keep its Sunday slot, well, so be it. In terms of flexibility, there was no more “bend” here than there is in a steel girder. The TV execs held all the cards.

Then we had the pesky little stadium availability issue.  Most clubs were second (or third) tenants. So MLS matches would be scheduled when there was no pro football game, college football game, high school football game, big concert, small concert, motocross, religious revival, graduation ceremony, dog show or Up-With-People march to stick in the stadium.

But in Year 14 (this year), 9 of 15 clubs are primary tenants in their grounds. By next year, as Red Bull Arena comes on-line and Philadelphia steps aboard the MLS express, that ratio will be 11 of 16.

So stadium availability is no longer prohibitive to the cause. All final-weekend issues can be mitigated by smart scheduling. In this case, that means ensuring that only clubs with scheduling priority get to host matches in Round 32. Problem solved!

As for the TV contracts, the landscape has changed a bit. MLS has grown sufficiently as a property that leverage is a bit more balanced. That’s not to say that MLS can make demands willy-nilly. But league officials can now expect be heard if they go to the networks to express concern over competitive initiatives like this one.

If Telefutura wants it Sunday matches, well, OK. But alert them that it won’t be possible to have one on the final weekend.  Done.

I’m hearing whispers that Major League Soccer’s competition committee is hip to the issue, and that movement may be at hand. Don’t be surprised if this gets knocked around the table as the league’s board of governors meet in Seattle next month before the MLS Cup final.