MLS Expansion Musings: Potential Schedule Formats

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

With plenty of talk about the potential expansion cities for MLS in the last week, I couldn't help but think about the change that will most affect Timbers fans: the schedule.

At halftime of the 2013 MLS All-Star Game, Don Garber announced that Major League Soccer plans to add four teams to the league by 2020, a move that would put the league at 24 clubs and balloon the schedule to 45 games if kept as is. With recent complaints about the length of the schedule coming to light, it is more try much a given that we will see the schedule reworked starting in 2015 when the next expansion team, New York City FC, joins the league.

Last week the expansion movement got even more interesting, with Don Garber telling the press in Toronto that three of those four expansion cities are already accounted for. Early speculation seems to be that the league wants to establish a strong footprint in the southeast, with strong claims being made that Atlanta, Miami, and Orlando are the three locked-in expansion cities. This means that there will will be changed coming to the structure of MLS.

With season ticket renewals going out around the league, it has been confirmed that the schedule will stay at 34 games for 2014. When NYCFC joins the league the following year the Eastern Conference, which already has one more team than the West, will need to shed some weight. The obvious answer is to send Houston back to the Western Conference, their home before 2011 when the arrival of Portland and Vancouver last necessitated a balancing of the conferences. However, the potential arrival of Orlando in the league as early as 2015, as mooted in this SI article last month, could throw a wrench into that plan.

Twenty teams is an easy number to split up, but twenty-one, twenty-two, and twenty-three are much more complicated.

What happens with...

20 Teams

Two conferences of ten teams.

  • Two games against each home conference team - 18 games
  • One game against each away conference team - 10 games

For this one, Houston would move back to the Western Conference. Without any additional monkeying with the schedule, this schedule leaves the season at only twenty-eight games per team, six less than this year. A shorter schedule is something that has been kicked around the league office, according to this article, but we could also see the missing games made up for with specific rivalry matches. (ie. an extra game for the Timbers against the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps to bring the schedule up to thirty games.)

21 Teams

This is where things start getting a little crazy.

Option 1

Two conferences, one with ten teams and one with eleven.

Western Conference

  • Two games against each home conference team - 18 games
  • One game against each away conference team - 11 games

Eastern Conference

  • Two games against home conference teams - 20 games
  • One game against each away conference team - 10 games

This is not too far-fetched, given that we currently have uneven conferences with nineteen teams in the league. This year and next it will have been the East that has born the brunt of the resulting strange scheduling, with each team facing every one of their home conference teams three times, except one team that they face two times. In a league with Orlando and NYCFC joining the East and Houston returning to the West, it would be the Western Conference having to deal with an uneven number of games. To remedy that, the league could add one "rivalry game" to each team's schedule in the West for a 30 game season.

Option 2

Three conferences of seven teams each.

  • Three games against each home conference team - 18 games
  • One game against each away conference team - 14 games

The other option for splitting up twenty-one teams is with three nice and even conferences. This almost makes too much sense as it would further save on travel time, highlight regional rivalries, and not necessitate any weird extra games being added into the schedule. The one place that it does not make sense is when it comes time to figure out a playoff structure. Also, the geographic split for these three conferences would not be pretty and would likely split up a rivalry or two (like Houston-Dallas in 2011).

22 Teams

Two conferences of eleven teams.

  • Two games against each home conference team - 20 games
  • One game against each away conference team - 11 games

Back to a nice, even split. This one is easy. We could make it difficult by playing with the three conference idea some more, but that is just asking for trouble.

23 Teams

Two conferences, one with eleven teams and one with twelve.

Western Conference

  • Two games against each home conference team - 20
  • One game against each away conference team - 12

Eastern Conference

  • Two games against home conference teams - 22 games
  • One game against away conference teams - 11 games

With this split, things start to get weird again. Having a conference of eleven teams and a conference of twelve teams, if the three probable expansion cities come into the league before the fourth wildcard city then another team is going to need to be shipped over to the Western Conference for the sake of balance. Sporting Kansas City seems like the best bet. Additionally, this would require at least one rivalry game be added onto the schedule of the teams in the West.

24 Teams

Before it was getting weird. With twenty-four teams, things start to get awesome, but a little unwieldy.

Option 1

Two conferences of twelve teams each.

  • Two games against each home conference team - 22 games
  • One game against each away conference team - 12 games

A straight split; this is nice and easy, but would require another team be moved or added to the Western Conference.

Option 2

Three conferences of eight teams each.

  • Two games against each home conference team - 14 games
  • One game against each away conference team - 16 games

Just like the possibility of playing with three conferences with twenty-one teams, this has its advantages when it comes to saving on travel while also allowing for a shorter schedule than a two conference system.

Option 3

Two conferences with two divisions of six teams each.

Taking regionalism to the least extreme extreme.

Option 3A
  • Two games against each home division team - 10 games
  • One game against each away division team - 18 games

In this setup, each team plays against their five closest competitors twice and everyone else once, allowing for the shortest possible schedule with twenty-four teams in the league, while still playing each team.

Option 3B
  • Three games against each home conference team inside the division - 15 games
  • Two games against each home conference team outside the division - 12 games
  • One game against each team in one division from the away conference, to switch each year - 6

Finally, we have some NFL style craziness. If the league wants to emphasize regional rivalries and decides that they just don't care if every team plays every other team once in a given season, this is the way to go.

What do you think about the potential for "only in America" league formats in the upcoming years? Are there any that I have discounted that we should look at?

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