[MLS 2012] Months of discussions and meetings have, as expected, yielded a new look for MLS next season.
No longer will teams play each league rival at least twice in a balanced format. Rather than expand the schedule from 34 to 36 games, a necessity for a balanced schedule with 19 teams, MLS is beefing up intra-conference matches. It has also tweaked the playoff format yet again, though the elements of 10 qualifiers and wild-card games has been retained.
Citing travel distances and the taxing schedules some teams endure while playing in outside competitions such as the Concacaf Champions League, MLS Commissioner Don Garber confirmed months ago a balanced schedule is no longer feasible. The schedule itself will be released early next year.
No longer will MLS stage its championship game at a pre-selected venue. Instead, the MLS Cup finalists with the greater number of points will host the match. Those teams will be determined by winners of the conference finals, which are being expanded from a single game to the same two-leg system used in the conference semis. One-game playoffs for wild-card teams have been retained.
REGULAR SEASON. The addition of Montreal as the 19th team next season will unbalance the conferences as well as the schedule, but the league has retained the concept that each team will play each league rival at least once.
Montreal goes into the Eastern Conference as the 10th team and will play seven of its conference foes three times (21 games) and two foes twice (four). Added to one game each against the nine Western Conference teams produces 34 games for the Eastern teams. An interesting question will be which teams play each other only twice and how those games will be rotated.
In the West, each of the nine teams will play its eight conference opponents three times (24 games) and the 10 Eastern teams once apiece for a total of 34 games. Teams will play four intra-conference teams twice at home and once away, and the other four once at home and twice away.
In the cases of teams playing each other an odd number of games, the home-and-away specifics will be reversed in 2013. As was the case this year, the season will start in mid-March and conclude in October
PLAYOFFS. The discrepancy between schedules played by teams in different conferences has prompted the league to once again tweak its methods of determining playoff teams. MLS has also expanded the playoffs to incorporate a two-game conference finals rather than the one-game final currently utilized.
In 2011, the top three teams in each conference and next four on overall points qualified for the playoffs. In 2012, the top five in each conference will qualify, since teams within the same conference play the same schedule.
In both conferences, the regular-season champion plays the winner of a wild-card game between the fourth- and fifth-place finishers, and the second- and third-place finishers meet in the two-game conference semifinals. Those winners square off in two-leg conference finals for a shot at MLS Cup, which for the first time will be hosted by the higher-seeded finalist rather than at a pre-selected venue.