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Posted at 9:10 AM ET, 11/23/2010

MLS proposes changes...oh, and Colorado are the champs

By Jeff Maurer

One quick thought about the game before I get to stuff that United fans might actually care about (sorry, Colorado and Dallas - you're deserving finalists, and Happy Meals all around for the Rapids and whatever, but I simply could not find a reason to care about this game): consistency in refereeing is overrated. Sometimes in baseball, the umpire calls an outside strike early in the game, and then in the name of "consistency" he calls increasingly ridiculous outside strikes in order to prove that he did not, in fact, make a mistake, and that he simply prefers a five-foot-wide strike zone. That's basically what Baldomero Toledo Sunday night: he let some early fouls go, and for the rest of the game you'd pretty much have to hit your opponent with a folding chair to draw a whistle.

The real story for most of us is that MLS announced some changes they're planning for the near future. This is interesting stuff - the format of the league affects the popularity of the league, and the popularity of the league affects the quality of the soccer. So I have opinions on all of these changes. Here's what they announced: 

The playoff field will expand from eight teams to ten.

Bad idea. Ironically, this was announced as a measure to "creating more meaningful games". This does the opposite: extremely large playoff fields make the regular season less relevant (see: college basketball...can we please just fast-forward to March?). We all remember when eight out of 10 MLS teams made the playoffs - anyone with half a brain could see why that was a bad idea. And someone with half a brain did see why that was a bad idea: Alexi Lalas reminded MLS Commissioner Don Garber at halftime that matches weren't very incentivised when 80 percent of the league made the playoffs. Here's what Garber said in reply:

"We've got to find a way...where teams have more incentive. It could be more allocation money. It could be where they're seeded. It could be what we do with our draft. It could simulate promotion or relegation."

None of these ideas really do it for me. Unless I, the fan, see a percentage of the allocation money, then I don't really care if the players receive a win bonus. And seeding means just about nothing in this league (has Garber been watching the playoffs?). As for monkeying with the draft, I'm not sure what he's talking about, but personally I like the American system in which the weakest teams get help through the draft (USA! USA! USA!). "Simulating relegation" seems like an idea with the same inherent problem: you're going to punish a team for a poor finish, thereby increasing the likelihood of a poor finish next year, which will be followed by further punishment? Are you trying to institutionalize the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise death spiral?

The only way I like - or at least don't hate - this idea is if the 7-10 teams play a midweek game before a weekend game hosted by the No. 1 and No. 2 teams. That way, being 7-10 is a significant disadvantage; not only do you have to play an extra game, but you have to play the following game on short rest. Also, the top two teams have an advantage because they get to play a tired, low-seeded team. If they don't do it this way, then the 1-6 teams will play after a 2-3 week layoff...is that any kind of advantage?

MLS will consider moving to the international (fall-spring) calendar.

I'm on the fence. On the plus side, moving to the international calendar would solve the international call-up issues that make so many MLS games no fun to watch. It would also allow the U.S. to send a full-strength squad to Copa America (if we ever get invited back) and MLS wouldn't have to play through the World Cup. On the minus side: ever been to Boston in February? How about Chicago? Even D.C. would have had about three weeks worth of matches wiped out by snow last year. In fairness, though, we have weather issues now: no human being should ever have to be outdoors in Houston in August. I think a move to the international schedule is only possible when the vast majority of teams have their own stadiums; that way, you can schedule massive road trips for the cold-weather teams during the winter months. But even then, it doesn't quite work: assuming Montreal and N.Y. as 19th and 20th expansion teams, 13 of the 20 MLS teams fall in the "brutal winter" category, including all 10 teams in the East. Soccer fans tend to be fans of the international calendar, but I think we should acknowledge that, at best, this would be a mixed bag.

Balanced schedule stays in 2011, unbalanced schedule coming afterwards.

I don't understand why people care so much about conferences. I don't understand why soccer fans are so in love with a single table, and I don't understand why MLS sticks to meaningless conferences when their fans clearly don't want them. But, if MLS goes to an unbalanced schedule, then conferences are here to stay (presumably, you play more games against teams in your conference). Seems pretty obvious why MLS would want that: more Galaxy/Chivas, less Columbus/Dallas. But I'm not sure I'd love it as a fan: Ronaldino might be with L.A. in 2012, and L.A. might not come to D.C. On the balance, I'd probably prefer to just play each team twice, but if the revenue boost for MLS would be significant, then I might be able to be persuaded (remember: in MLS more than any other league, revenue now = quality later).

This issue actually relates to the calendar issue. MLS wants an unbalanced schedule because they don't want to play more than 34 games. And, right now, that makes sense: with the league, US Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, Superliga (really? still? why?), and the European Summer of Lucrative Friendlies, the calendar is already way too full. But if we move to the international calendar, there's more room: the international schedule is nine months, and we currently only play seven (plus playoffs). Maybe a January break for a Mexican-hosted Superliga even starts to make sense.

The reserve league is returning.

I'm one-thousand percent behind this one. Andy Najar, Bill Hamid, Juan Agudelo, impending draftee Matt Kassel - these are all MLS academy players. The future of the league is finding and developing talent, and the reserve league makes that more possible. It also makes a full calendar more possible...someone has to play in those Superliga games, right?

By Jeff Maurer  | November 23, 2010; 9:10 AM ET
Categories:  Jeff Maurer, United  | Tags:  D.C. United, Jeff Maurer  
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Comments

These are really nice observations. However, I'm afraid that these topics have already been beaten to death over at Goff's Soccer Insider blog. I wish this forum were better integrated with that one. Perhaps the two of you should have permanent links to each other on the left-hand side of the page.

Posted by: universityandpark | November 24, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

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