[MLS SPOTLIGHT] A glance at the list of 34 Los Angeles Galaxy league games this season points out some possible ramifications of a new scheduling format. Is the imbalanced schedule adopted for the 2012 season likely to affect the balance of power in the Western Conference?
In the case of the Galaxy, it just might, given its mediocre start to the season and the excellent form shown by several conference rivals, particularly Seattle and San Jose. Since teams play each conference foe three times, in the head-to-head matchups one team will play an extra game at home. Which teams get those extra home games could have a significant effect on the standings, especially if those teams can exploit any edge they have over their tougher conference rivals.
In drawing up the 2012 schedule, MLS wielded the unbalanced schedule to maximize regional rivalries. It also tried to spread out the extra home games equitably, but the process can’t account for sharp improvement by teams from 2011 to 2012, and it is this factor that could turn against the Galaxy.
Fielding a weakened lineup lacking David Beckham,Todd Dunivant and Robbie Keane, the Galaxy’s record (3-4-1) dipped back below .500 when it lost, 2-0, to Seattle at CenturyLink Field Wednesday night. The result ended a run of six games against the Galaxy the Sounders had failed to win, and perhaps gave the players and Coach Sigi Schmid a boost of confidence about also winning when the Galaxy returns to Seattle on Aug. 5.
The Sounders plan to open up the entire stadium for that match, as they will do for the visits of Cascadia Cup rivals Portland and Vancouver. (Ironically, if Beckham plays for Great Britain in the Olympic Games, he could miss that match as well.)
The Galaxy must also play twice on the road against San Jose, which straggled to a seventh-place finish last year but is currently atop the Western Conference at 7-1-1 after outlasting D.C. United, 5-3, on Wednesday. For the June 30 encounter, the Quakes will eschew tiny Buck Shaw Stadium for the much larger Stanford Stadium and put on a post-game fireworks show. The teams will also play at Buck Shaw on Oct. 21.
Maybe the schedule-makers thought a good Seattle team would balance out a mediocre San Jose squad in regards to the Galaxy playing an extra road game against those teams, but right now, the Quakes look nothing like last year’s shaky strugglers. They will still have to make that extra home game count, of course, which ratchets up the importance of all three meetings between the teams.
Because the playoff slots will be allotted to the top five finishers in each conference, the intraconference games take on greater importance. Teams losing conference matches concede ground to their rivals, a critical factor as nine teams fight for five spots. Last year, the top four teams in the league on overall points came from the Western Conference, and while Sporting Kansas City may have a say in the Supporters’ Shield battle, the rest of the race looks Western.
MLS did give the Galaxy an extra home game against perennial contender Real Salt Lake, so at least during the regular season Los Angeles needs to make just one trip to Utah. However, on the opening weekend of the season, RSL thumped the Galaxy, 3-1, at Home Depot Center, so that edge is canceled out unless the Galaxy can win at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The Galaxy must also cope with opponents fueled by a double-dose of motivation. Already envied for its high-priced talent and glamorous persona, Los Angeles is the defending champion, and usually faces opponents bringing their ‘A’ game whenever possible. How else to explain Toronto FC’s stunning upset in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals? TFC hasn’t won a game since.
A stronger Galaxy lineup is likely Saturday for the visit to HDC of the Red Bulls. There is no corresponding game in New York for the Galaxy this year; one other effect of the imbalanced schedule is teams on both coasts won’t have to criss-cross the country so often to play Eastern teams. The Galaxy plays at Montreal, Chicago, Houston, Columbus and Kansas City; it hosts the other five Eastern teams.
Maybe reduced travel to the East can soften the impact of more tough games out West for a defending champion still finding its feet in 2012.