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A reduced, 28-game MLS season may be around the corner

Sep 3, 2013, 4:01 PM EDT

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Major League Soccer may be developing a plan to better deal with international dates – specifically with the maddening practice of playing through them, robbing league matches of game-breakers, sometimes at critical points of the season.

At the same time, league leaders could solve other vexing problems.

The answer, perhaps, is a 28-game schedule, a reduction of six league matches annually.

I am told that the notion began circling the board of directors’ table at meetings attached to Major League Soccer’s All-Star game five weeks ago in Kansas City. The tricky concept of addition by subtraction could create a couple of problems – but it solves a bunch, too.

It creates relief around these international breaks, which aren’t really breaks for MLS clubs forced to power through most of them, never mind the absence of high-dollar stars who are off for World Cup qualifier duty.

The FIFA fixture date problem could be marginalized now (without a league schedule reduction, that is) by cramming additional weeknight dates into the schedule, but that becomes too much of a revenue killer in some markets. (More Saturday nights mean more money for most clubs.)

It would also make scheduling a relative breeze in a 20-team league, which MLS becomes in 2015 with the addition of New York City FC. Play each team in your conference twice (home and away, naturally) and every team from the other conference once (home this year, away the next, naturally). That’s it. Quite simple. That’s 28 games.

It’s not 100 percent “balanced” because of the home-road asymmetry for cross-conference scheduling, but at least everyone is playing everyone an equal number of times, and that counts for a lot.

By reducing league matches, MLS would become slightly more competitive in CONCACAF Champions League matches; a few more of the first-choice types could be sprinkled into MLS starting lineups during the annual, regional tournament.

Major League Soccer played a 28-game schedule back in the “bad old days,” in the frugal 2001 and 2002 seasons, when cost containment became priority for a league more in the balance than most fans understood at the time. (Besides, with just 10 clubs, to which MLS was reduced by 2002, did fans really want to see the same old clubs roll through town one more time? Doubtful.)

MLS schedules rose to 30 games in 2003, then fluctuated some before arrival into the current 34-game set.

(MORE: Updated MLS rankings following 27 rounds of play)

Yes, pulling three home matches per club off the table reduces revenue; around MLS, a larger percentage of overall revenue comes from gate and stadium ancillaries such as concessions. It could also reduce sponsor value, a further cash drain. In other leagues, greater TV revenue means less reliance on ticket sales and game-day ancillaries for cash.

That’s the major debating point – but owners could determine it penny wise and pound foolish, that addition by subtraction works in this instance. If so, a 28-game schedule could be the new way around MLS.

  1. larryharry59 - Sep 3, 2013 at 11:20 PM

    Less is more because the season will be shorter from 10 months to say 8. Less games also makes every game more crucial. Thats why NFL and college football are king. So few games means everyone is so crucial so fans watch them. The 162 game schedule of the MLB is a huge reason why its losing tv ratings.

    • ajayrayj - Sep 4, 2013 at 12:30 AM

      You must know nothing about soccer as an international game. The NFL doesn’t have competition. Neither does MLB. Far and away the best.

      In soccer however, we have competition all over, from Mex to South America to Europe to Asia. The players abroad are playing 10 months a year. They are playing 38 league games per year. They already play more games than MLS and for more months out of the year than MLS players. And many places they have better development and coaching than we do here. Those players are our competition. Those are the players we face in the WC where we’re mostly judged. NFL and MLB and their development aren’t judged nearly as much on the international level like our NT at the WC.

      Not even comparable. But, you sound like you work for MLS so I’m not surprised you don’t understand.

    • thenjhammer - Sep 10, 2013 at 4:59 PM

      college football has added games in the last ten years and instead of teams playing 11 a season everyone now plays at least 12 with more conference championship games and considerably more bowl games. The MLB has expanded the playoffs for more games. Why? More money. Less games equals less money.

  2. hildezero - Sep 4, 2013 at 12:50 AM

    @robe1300,

    The MLS season doesn’t start in February. It starts in March. MLS has a ten month season.

    • ajayrayj - Sep 4, 2013 at 3:04 AM

      No it doesn’t. Half the teams end their season in Oct.

      Nov-no games
      Dec-no games
      Jan-no games
      Feb-no games
      March-season starts

      12 months in a year, minus Nov, Dec, Jan and Feb equals half of MLS with an 8 month season. Then most of MLS with a 8 month and 1-2 weeks season. Only 2 teams in MLS will have as much as a 9 month schedule, let alone 10, and those are the two teams in the MLS Cup.

      • mikeevergreen - Sep 5, 2013 at 11:31 AM

        Ajayrayj – The reason why the regular season is what it is monthwise is because for four months, the weather is too lousy to play in Denver, SLC, Chicago, & Columbus. You’ve noticed by now that there are no MLS teams in Minneapolis and Detroit, haven’t you? If you got the money to put roofing on Toyota Park, Sports Authority Stadium, Rio Tinto and Crew Stadium, be our guest. Than we can go 10 months.

  3. ktasay - Sep 4, 2013 at 10:24 AM

    Both positive and negative points, as have been pointed out by many.

    Regarding the ‘making up games’ with other competition (friendlies, etc…), the shortened schedule would allow the Champions League to return to it’s expanded group stage. It could even add an earlier qualification stage and include a few extra teams from each country. For MLS that could mean 6 or more teams playing the extra games.

    Making the Open Cup games a home/away series could also make up for the missing games, and make the competition more meaningful than single elimination. May be a bit harder on lower division teams, but they would at least be guaranteed one game at home.

    Granted the Open Cup only includes the US teams; the 3 Canadian teams would need to figure out their own version, or play the mentioned friendlies.

    • sickstring - Sep 4, 2013 at 12:05 PM

      i don’t really want to see MLS cut games. i agree with those who point out the international competition, and think it would be bad for player/league development. MLS has some struggles to manage its schedules and manage players during international callups, but i think we’re just starting to see coaches adjust, and teams invest in building the depth that will make them competitive during player absences. it’s a growing pains phase right now, but cutting back on games to create breaks around international friendlies sends the wrong message. having no games during 6 weeks of the season will really disrupt the momentum of the league, especially for casual viewers. the friendlies are also a positive for the development of players who aren’t seeing a lot of minutes. forcing teams to build a competitive AND deep team is going to help keep MLS on its trajectory to become a top world league.

    • mikeevergreen - Sep 5, 2013 at 11:33 AM

      Actually, if we go 28 games, we can bring the MLS/LigaMX Superliga back. The players won’t bitch, the old Superliga had a money pot at the end.

    • devilsfan3332 - Sep 10, 2013 at 1:53 PM

      to expand on your point,UEFA has actually considered bringing the MLS to the Europa League so a shorter schedule would certainly facilatie that

    • thenjhammer - Sep 10, 2013 at 5:19 PM

      canadian teams have their “canadian championship” 4 team round robin to qualify for their spot in the CL.

    • thenjhammer - Sep 10, 2013 at 5:20 PM

      also, i dont want to see the us open cup go to a home-n-home. i think its great that on any given night a PDL team could rock the red bulls.

  4. fischy - Sep 4, 2013 at 12:09 PM

    ere might be a neat symmetry to the schedule, it’s not a long-term solution to the congestion issue. What happens when the league expands in short order to 22, and later to 24 teams? Just to fit the home-and-home schedule and the one game against the opposite conference teams format, the league will bump up to 31 games and then to 34 games.

    Having said that, the question about dropping 3 home games and 3 away games per team will come down to money. Lopping off some travel will cut expenses. What about dropping 3 home dates? Will the shorter season induce more people to buy tickets, offsetting in part the lost home dates? It might be worth the experiment, especially since the crowds are usually smaller when folks are faced with going to home games or staying home ot watch international matches.

    In the end, though, the league will have to find another solution to fixture congestion because further expansion will mean the return if the 34 game schedule.

    • fischy - Sep 4, 2013 at 12:12 PM

      Sorry for typos– my laptop’s got issues. Here’s how it should read:

      While there might be a neat symmetry to the schedule, it’s not a long-term solution to the congestion issue. What happens when the league expands in short order to 22, and later to 24 teams? Just to fit the home-and-home schedule and the one game against the opposite conference teams format, the league will bump up to 31 games and then to 34 games.

      Having said that, the question about dropping 3 home games and 3 away games per team will come down to money. Lopping off some travel will cut expenses. What about dropping 3 home dates? Will the shorter season induce more people to buy tickets, offsetting in part the lost home dates? It might be worth the experiment, especially since the crowds are usually smaller when folks are faced with going to home games or staying home to watch international matches.

      In the end, though, the league will have to find another solution to fixture congestion because further expansion will mean the return of the 34 game schedule.

  5. mikeevergreen - Sep 5, 2013 at 12:13 PM

    One thing that a 28-game schedule makes possible – fall-winter-spring season. Start in mid-August. 14 weekends gets you to mid-November. Take December and 1st half of January off, the start again, with northern teams on the road first three weeks of season. Done my mid-Aoril, then playoffs.

  6. braxtonrob - Sep 7, 2013 at 7:34 PM

    At first glance, I HATED this idea, but as soon as I put a tiny amount of thought into it, it becomes very clear that this is a perfect idea.
    We’re not the EPL or any other European League so there should be a limit to how hard we try to copy those leagues.
    We have 2 divisions, and it makes perfect sense to play every team in your division twice, but every team in the other division only once.
    But, even better than that, this opens up a much too clogged schedule for:
    1. US Open Cup games
    2. CONCACAF Champions League games, and
    3. USMNT call-ups won’t be so damaging to rosters anymore.

    In MLBaseball, I HATED the Wild Card system at first, but once implemented, I realized it was for the best.
    I expect to have the same reaction to this (28-game schedule).

  7. thenjhammer - Sep 10, 2013 at 5:17 PM

    I original hated the thought in this article. Now its just down to “very much dislike”.

    To a couple of points:
    – Less isnt more in this instance. The money lost is crucial. You cant replace the revenue lost in regular season games with that of US Open cup games or friendlies…the attendance isnt anywhere near the same. Your talking the difference between 20000 and 6000.
    – To have better players playing in the CONCACAF Champions League is up to the teams. They can play better players in there if they want. And out of the soon to be 20 team MLS, only 5 teams are in it (4 US, 1 CAN) and why are we making drastic changes on the premise of it effecting only 25% of the league?
    – Were not getting an invite to the Europa League. I forget who said that but just stop.
    – Leagues in Europe play a 34 and 38 game schedule with multiple national and league cup tournaments (we only have one) not to mention scheduling the regional cup tournaments (UEFA and Europa) and even national team qualification and friendlies. We have one league, one tournament and a national team and we cant pull off scheduling it? Come on MLS owners, you’re supposed to be smart.
    – England has a 38 game schedule (the npower leagues have 46!), the FA Cup, The Capital One cup (non-EPL teams), the Johnstone Paint Trophy (CL1 and below), UEFA CL, UEFA Europa League, international friendlies and qualifying, and team friendlies and qualifying. Thats 60+ games for some players and teams. The MLS teams play 40-45 (?) and this is an issue? Come on.
    – And to a 28 game schedule making fall-spring season possible…you can do that with a 34/38 game schedule as well.

    My solution (probably horrible):
    Moving the schedule from spring-fall to fall-spring is not coming into the discussion since The Don seems dead set against it. Move to a 38 game schedule when NYCFC come in. Keep that and get creative when we go to 22 and 24 teams as The Don said would happen in the next decade. Start the season in mid-February and have the cold weather cities play no home games for the first month of the season. Try to limit the mid week games to US Open Cup and Champions League stuff as it does cut down on revenue when regular season games are on a Wednesday (even though its easier for me haha). You have to find a way to help the entire league produce more revenue and whats feasible for the 20 teams and not just the 5 in the CL or the last 8 that make the quarters in the USOC.

    • thenjhammer - Sep 10, 2013 at 6:11 PM

      And:
      – Cut the playoffs to four teams in each conference.
      – If you were to have a mid-February through end of October (playoffs in Nov.) schedule you would have enough time for everything (obviously playing through the WC and GC). Look at 2015. If you start February 14th you have 38 saturdays and 37 wednesdays. thats essentially 75 days to play games. Subtract 12 international friendly dates. Subtract the at most 9 dates (if you make the finals, and again its only 5 MLS teams) from the CONCACAF champions league. Subtract 5 dates from the US Open Cup. That leaves 49 dates to play 34 or 38 games. Since 8 of the international dates are on weekends, you would have 30 weekends available for games. Thats only 4/8 midweek games…half of which would be at home.

      Thus, you could feasibly have a 38 game schedule with 30 weekend games and 8 midweek games all including the USOC, CL and international friendlies with a mid-February (cold cities don’t start home games until mid-march, with 11 midweek spots available for snowed out make ups) to end of October schedule for the regular season.

      Should I send this to The Don? haha

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