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. Not 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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27 Responses to Unbalanced Schedule Could Hurt MLS in The Champions League

  1. With the unbalanced schedule not going away anytime soon, maybe the solution to this is to limit trickle-down spots to the top two per conference?

    • Earl Reed says:

      There may not be a truly equitable way to do it without returning to a balanced schedule. Of course, if it’s not SJ vs SKC in the MLS Cup Final, it won’t matter anyway.

  2. Hal says:

    once there are 20 teams what are the chances of MLS doing the right thing and going to a balanced schedule with a single table?

    • Alan says:

      Its not the right thing, so not at all. Play-offs are here to stay.

      • Hal says:

        i didn’t say anything about playoffs.

        • Alan says:

          You said single table. Usually that means to pick the regular season champion via single table to most people. You didn’t say play-offs specifically, so my apologies.

        • Charles says:

          Sure, answer the question, why would US Soccer keep qualified teams from playing first division in a parity league ?

          Artificially prohibiting them from winning first division.

          You would be the first to answer it. You could break ground !

          • The original Tom says:

            Because, Charles, you don’t want an unwieldy amount of clubs in your league. Plus, if your club sucks, it is nice if they can play in an easier league and win some games. Plus, it is nice to change some opponents from season to season.

          • Charles says:

            Opponents would be changed obviously, not like they are going to do a balanced 30-40 team schedule.

            40 teams is not unweildy. 310 million people represented by 19 teams is.

            And your team should have up and down years at the top level. Not non-existant years at the top level.

            But I will say someone did answer the question with a valid viewpoint,
            thanks, OTom.

    • Charles says:

      And is there are 30 teams, the right things to do is ?
      Or are your for doing the wrong thing and only allowing 20 teams to play 1st division every year ?

      • Hal says:

        are you trying to bait me into a pro/rel discussion?

        • Alan says:

          Its a valid question. An unbalanced schedule would be necessary to have over 20 teams in the first division.

        • Charles says:

          Not sure why this posted up above ( maybe user error ):

          Sure, answer the question, why would US Soccer keep qualified teams from playing first division in a parity league ?

          Artificially prohibiting them from winning first division.

          You would be the first to answer it. You could break ground !

  3. Alan says:

    I am a big San Jose fan, so I am happy that they are in the CCL finally, but I still believe domestic league competitions trump any other team competition out there. I think that the unbalanced schedule help a lot towards alleviating costs and burn out, while promoting regional rivalries. I see it now. While attendance is always good for the Quakes (they sell out pretty much every match), the home fans are beyond passionate about their rivalry with LA. An unbalanced schedule only helps to fuel that passion. I’m willing to bet that the same thing is happening in the NW region. I will let Charles discuss that though.

    • Charles says:

      Well my ears are still ringing. 67K Sunday night.

      Tickets down in Portland were going for insane amounts of money for the games against Seattle.

      • DCLee says:

        Love what is goig in the NW and the games in the NE have been pretty well attended this season and hotly contested so I am enjoying the unbalanced schedule so far and thin kit has a place especially with the travel involved.

        • Alan says:

          But, the rest of the world doesn’t do it that way. Its not “proper”. Its “mickey mouse”. *sarcasm*

          • Charles says:

            I feel like we owe the world an apology for standing the whole game, cheering louder than they do and the rave green color of our team.

            Not the way the rest of the world does it.

  4. The original Tom says:

    I used to be against an unbalanced schedule, but now that it might cost RSL a Champions League place I’m for it!

  5. The original Tom says:

    Actually I’ve come to see how an unbalanced schedule reduces overall travel. But I would only award the CCL spot to the MLS Cup winner, and if they already had a spot, I’d move that place to the league- not the Cup runner-up. I’d also not have the play-offs be two brackets (one per division) but one bracket- this would make the play-offs more fair.

    • Alan says:

      I would be for this if you had a 2 phase season like what was described in an earlier article. A Conference phase, and a Cup phase. Basically the first phase was a single table per conference phase (the winners would be conference champs) and the second phase would be the rest of the unbalanced season where the Conference phase points carried over. That should make people a little bit happier.

      • The original Tom says:

        I think that is too complicated. Just take the two cup winners, and the the two regular season division winners. If one or two of those is the same, then go to the next highest regular season points, and don’t worry about it too much. It’s just sports. Even in a balanced schedule luck plays a factor do to opponents suspensions, injuries, roster changes, etc… By the way, same for the Canada champion, if they should also win in MLS, place goes to the next best regular season in MLS.

        • Alan says:

          I’m not sure why having Conference Champions in an unbalanced schedule is a bad idea. It really only seems logical. I also don’t think that it is too complicated. We already have the same thing for the most part. The only difference is that you make the play-offs non-conference based and you make the first half of the season conference based.

  6. Peter C says:

    Interesting post. I would just say that I think

    “lucrative extra play”

    should be “potentially lucrative” as the CCL payout barely covers the expenses of competing in the tourney.

    The last numbers I was able to dig up, not verified, is that winning it all only yields $147,500, and half of that would go to the players.
    The real prize is winning the CCL which gets you into the FIFA Club World Cup, with a minimum payout of $1,000,000.

  7. Tijuana Robert says:

    I don’t mind the playoffs at all but the unbalanced scheduled has to go along with conferences. CCL spots should go to MLS Cup Winner, Shield with places #2-#3 getting a CCL spot.

  8. Charles says:

    The problem with your arguements are two fold Earl.

    One, last I checked, and it has been a couple of weeks, the Eastern teams had more points total. There might be more ties in the West, but these Eastern teams which have more points than my Sounders, are good, very good.

    Two, the playoff league ( outside Vancouver, in the west ) plus one is seperated by 10 points. You can’t use your Euro comparisons to decide what is best for the US. It is apples and oranges, joke league and real league. If the 8th place team in the British leagues make Euro leagues by winning a cup, it is rediculous. They are probably more than 10 points out already. Here not so much. Haven’t you seen the MLS hater trolls silence on what a joke it is to have SLC win the league as an 8 seed in 2009 ?

    I think you ( we ) need to watch the teams play, rather than just rely on who was better in the past to decide if unbalanced is the reason. I don’t mean that as a slam on your fanhood, or your ability to judge teams, just saying that LA has 12 losses and SLC has 11. I think the Chicago’s of MLS are every bit as good and have had a slightly better season.

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