Unbalanced Schedule Could Hurt MLS in The Champions League

Real Salt Lake, #2 In the West

So last night, overcoming Al Gore’s altitude prediction models, San Jose all but secured the Supporters’ Shield with a big 4-1 victory at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park against the Colorado Rapids. As pointed out by Earthquakes beat writer Robert Jonas, San Jose is now ensured of a CONCACAF Champions League spot for the 2013-14 season (h/t Lisa Erickson). Even though Sporting Kansas City still theoretically has a shot at the Supporters Shield, their qualification to the CCL was already secured through the U.S. Open Cup victory. Thus with at least 2nd Place secured, San Jose is in.

But in a response sequence to the above tweet, an interesting anomaly could develop, and it may toss about the landscape in Major League Soccer’s typical Champions League representation. The MLS Cup winner and Runner-Up end up getting their own CONCACAF Champions League spots. With the top seeds in each conference already in the 2013-14 field, a final featuring San Jose hosting Sporting Kansas City could lead to the MLS Cup slots being given to the #3 and #4 spots in the Regular Season single table. That would mean that the top 4 regular season records would be headed to continental football – that’s a result that seems very European in nature.

“So what’s the big deal?” you may say. In the typical UEFA single table designation, there is a balanced schedule involved. In MLS, that is not the case. Right now your #3 team is the Chicago Fire and #4 is Real Salt Lake. The #5 team? D.C. United.

That means that the Eastern Conference has 3 teams in the top 5 of the single table at the moment. While Chicago has surged recently and deserve a #3 seed, I don’t think anyone would believe D.C. belongs at that slot ahead of teams like Seattle and Los Angeles. Yet, there they are, and much of it is thanks to an unfairly unbalanced schedule.

Now the chances are actually quite good that we’ll have something other than a San Jose-Sporting Kansas City MLS Cup Final, so this is partly a theoretical exercise.┬áNot to mention, there are two other facts that we must acknowledge:

1) A team like D.C. United could make a run in the MLS Cup Playoffs and end up in the Final, thus getting into the CCL in that fashion.

2) Toronto F.C. has been a doormat in the league the last two years, but they have represented Canada very well in the Champions League.

Taking #1 into consideration, at least you can use the idea of qualifying through a “Cup” competition as a reason for being in the Champions League. Birmingham City got relegated two years ago, but made the Europa League through winning the League Cup. In other words, this is something perfectly legitimate. And as far as #2…well…I can’t explain that besides maybe a ripple in the time-space continuum.

But let’s get back to my point. This year you have LA, RSL, Seattle, and Houston in the Champions League – there is little argument about those teams being the top choices. Perhaps SKC would have had a decent claim, but the fact that they lost in knockout play in the MLS Cup Playoffs is a reality in any single elimination tournament. And certainly you could say the same for Real Salt Lake should they lose in this MLS Cup Playoff. There’s something that doesn’t quite sit as well about this one though.

The reason for it not adding up is that one team might qualify for this lucrative extra play based on playing a markedly weaker schedule than their peers. Making a Final means you beat teams head-to-head under the pressure of playoff soccer. Relying upon a table based on unsymmetrical opponents is like pulling names out of a hat when you’ve written half the names on bigger slips of paper.

And this scenario could happen this year – especially if Chicago has 2nd locked up going into the final match against D.C. United. At that point, all Chicago wants to do is enter the MLS Cup Playoffs healthy and without disciplinary problems. D.C. United could waltz into 3rd in the East barely contested (4th in the table). And if it’s an SJ-SKC final, it could leave out teams like RSL and the LA Galaxy (two teams DC lost to this season).

I will admit that I’m not a fan of the unbalanced schedule, and this is just one reason why I believe it’s a poor idea. I know that travel isn’t cheap, but trying to reduce the budget may push better teams out of the Champions League. If MLS really values winning the Champions League and getting a team in the Club World Cup, the unbalanced schedule may cost the only MLS team (RSL) that has experience in a CCL Final. The possibility is there, and it’s not that much of a stretch to see it happening.

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