MLS faces tougher scheduling issues in 2013

By Ridge Mahoney

The final important date of MLS 2012 is Friday, when Stage 2 of the Re-Entry Draft will be conducted by a conference call. Don’t look now, but 2013 is only a few weeks away.

Many players will have a clearer idea of where their careers are headed after Friday. Still unclear is when will be released the next important MLS element: its 2013 schedule, to be processed along the same lines as the 2012 campaign yet amid a more cluttered calendar in a tighter time frame.

Team offices are already abuzz, announcing plans and readying for a mid-January start to preseason camp that is necessitated by the earliest opening weekend -- March 2-3 -- in league history. Most teams will start preseason camp on the same day or just after MLS conducts its annual SuperDraft (Jan. 17 in Indianapolis, good seats are still available) and while a heated debate can be staged regarding the draft’s reduced importance as teams put more resources into their academies and development programs that’s a topic for another time.

Scheduling is always among the league’s toughest tasks, and not many teams were pleased in 2012 to alternate crowded intervals with barren stretches. More than a few coaches just shrugged their shoulders when asked why playing three games in seven days followed a month during which they played just once, or vice versa. The players, well, they’re even more powerless than the coaches, so they make do as best they can.

“I felt like we had a lot of games Saturday-Wednesday early in the season and then we had a time of one game a month,” said FC Dallas midfielder Brek Shea, who also jetted back and forth between his club and the U.S. U-23 and national teams for part of the season. “I think it could have been spread out more.”

Lighter schedules during the FIFA international dates caused some of the glitches, and so did an unbalanced schedule played by an odd number (19) of teams. All of those factors will again be in force next year, and one such factor will be even more of an impediment.

Nine of 10 FIFA international dates in 2013, including a June tripleheader, fall during the MLS regular season, and with more than two dozen players likely to be representing their countries Commissioner Don Garber has reiterated MLS plans to lighten its schedule during those windows and spread out the playoffs, which in 2012 conflicted with November friendlies.

“We will do everything possible to not schedule games during World Cup qualifying dates,” said Garber in a national conference call with media prior to MLS Cup. “We will have a lighter schedule during the Gold Cup [to be played in July].

“We will have the same playoff format, one that we thought worked really well this year, though we are working at finding ways to have more rest days between matches, something that I believe our coaches and players will find welcome.”

The playoff crunch, during which wild-card teams played four games in spans of 11-12 days, took the disadvantage of finishing fourth or fifth to an absurd extreme. Yet both finalists, Los Angeles and Houston, survived that gauntlet to face the opposite problem. When they met in MLS Cup Dec. 1, they played their second game in three weeks; the second legs of the conference finals Nov. 19 were followed by weekend off necessitated by Thanksgiving (not to mention the extra week needed to promote and gear up for MLS Cup, now held at the highest remaining seed, not at a predetermined site).

A critical phase of the 2013 campaign hinges on the final weekend of the regular season, which has yet to be determined but in any case must be juggled with two potentially decisive World Cup 2014 qualifying dates (Oct. 11 and 15). Cramming more games earlier in the year would enable the league to finish the season prior to the first October qualifier and complete its season in 32 weeks.

However, such a schedule would require the league to play through the March (22nd and 26th), June (7th. 11th, 18th) and September (6th, 10th) dates, which won’t be popular and probably impractical as well, since the league used 34 weeks (March 10-Oct. 26) to play out the 2012 season. If the league again adopts a 34-week season, a March 2 start will mandate it finish on Oct. 19, immediately after the last two qualifying dates.

(There are also play-off dates in November, which present further conflicts, since the Hexagonal looks competitive enough that perhaps only Mexico can be confident of finishing no lower than third. The fourth-place CONCACAF finisher plays off with the Oceania winner, meaning that MLS will have to deal with the potential conflict of two international dates in November, not one as in 2012 when the USA traveled to Russia for a friendly on the Wednesday between the two legs of the conference semifinals.)

Weather considerations require more early-season games played in Western Conference cities. Since that also hampers the scheduling of Eastern teams playing each other, interconference games predominate in March and April.

The unbalanced schedule reduces interconference games by about 45 percent, since teams from different conferences meet only once. In 2012, most of the 90 interconference games were played before the All-Star Game, which jibed with the league’s philosophy that since playoff spots were decided by conference finish, and not overall points, intraconference games played later in the season took on greater importance.

Poor showings against conference rivals cost Chicago and New York, to cite two examples, down the stretch, and both were eliminated at their first playoff obstacles. An exception was D.C. United, which played three of its last eight games against Western teams. No other Eastern team played more than one interconference game after Aug. 31.

In the unbalanced schedule, Western teams play 10 interconference games and Eastern teams play nine. There were 162 interconference games in 2011, which gave the league an odd look in that teams played more games (18) outside of their conferences than games (16) within it.

By contrast, in 2012 Western teams played 24 intraconference league games and Eastern teams 25, with the playoff qualifiers tacking on a few more leading up to MLS Cup.

That imbalance might be tilting the scale too far in the other direction, but it’s the direction we’ll see again in 2013.

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