What a day around MLS.
It started early – really, before Wednesday even began on the west coast – when the New York Red Bulls shocked the MLS world by firing Mike Petke and hiring Jesse Marsch in his stead. Then reports of Mix Diskerud to NYCFC. And Sacha Kljestan to the Red Bulls. Then the 2015 MLS schedule was, at long last, released.
But the final bombshell arguably took the cake – Taylor Twellman reporting MLS is in negotiations with Jozy Altidore. The three teams in the running for Altidore: New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC, and the Portland Timbers.
Thus, although there was no shortage of stories around MLS, the two that dominated the discussion in Portland were the MLS schedule and Altidore.
With the addition of Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo to the West (and subtraction of Chivas USA), it was clear the Western Conference schedule would have to become imbalanced to accommodate ten conference teams in a 34-game schedule. As a result, each team in the West will play six teams from the West three times, three teams from the West twice, and each team from the Eastern Conference once.
On Wednesday we found out just how the Timbers’ Western Conference schedule would look and, well, it isn’t great.
In a Western Conference with eight plausibly projected playoff teams, the goal in scheduling was to play Colorado and San Jose, the two teams who look at the moment like the weakest in the West, as many times as possible.
The Timbers, it turns out, drew the short straw, as they are the only team in the West to play both Colorado and San Jose twice while playing six genuine playoff contenders three times apiece.
Here is how each team’s strength of schedule breaks down (teams played at home twice in italics):
Three Matches: Vancouver, Sporting Kansas City, Houston, L.A. Galaxy, Seattle, Real Salt Lake.
Two Matches: F.C. Dallas, Colorado, San Jose.
Three Matches: Portland, Colorado, San Jose, L.A. Galaxy, Vancouver, Sporting Kansas City.
Two Matches: F.C. Dallas, Real Salt Lake, Houston.
Three Matches: Houston, Seattle, Portland, Real Salt Lake, F.C. Dallas, San Jose.
Two Matches: Vancouver, Colorado, Sporting Kansas City.
Real Salt Lake
Three Matches: Portland, L.A. Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City, San Jose, Colorado, Vancouver.
Two Matches: Seattle, F.C. Dallas, Houston.
Three Matches: San Jose, L.A. Galaxy, Houston, Colorado, Sporting Kansas City, Vancouver.
Two Matches: Portland, Seattle, Real Salt Lake.
Three Matches: Seattle, Real Salt Lake, F.C. Dallas, Portland, Colorado, San Jose.
Two Matches: Houston, L.A. Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City.
Sporting Kansas City
Three Matches: F.C. Dallas, Seattle, Colorado, Portland, Real Salt Lake, Houston.
Two Matches: Vancouver, L.A. Galaxy, San Jose.
Three Matches: Sporting Kansas City, San Jose, Colorado, Portland, L.A. Galaxy, F.C. Dallas.
Two Matches: Seattle, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver.
Three Matches: Real Salt Lake, F.C. Dallas, Vancouver, Sporting Kansas City, Houston, Seattle.
Two Matches: Portland, L.A. Galaxy, San Jose.
Is an extra game or two against Colorado or San Jose, as opposed to L.A. Galaxy or Real Salt Lake, and advantage? You bet. Is it worth more than, at most, three or four points on the form chart over the course of the season? Probably not. But, although the expanded six-team Western Conference playoff mitigates this disadvantage somewhat, the reality is three or four points routinely makes a material difference in playoff seeding.
That said, however, the Timbers hold the key to neutralizing the scheduling advantage some of their Western competitors hold over them today: If they win the games between March and October, January’s form-chart projections are irrelevant.
Although it may have been possible for MLS to better consider strength of schedule in creating the schedule, the reality is some imbalance was unavoidable. In 2015, the Timbers will have to manage that imbalance, as they appear to have drawn the most difficult schedule in the West.
Finally, it’s worth noting such imbalances will persist until MLS expands to 24 teams and the conference schedules can be re-balanced while maintaining a 34-game season. In fact, the schedule will be more convoluted beginning in 2017 when LAFC and Atlanta join the league to create 11-team conferences.
Thus, although the Timbers are on the unlucky end of the imbalance this year, they certainly won’t be alone in that respect by the time relative equilibrium is re-established in 2019.
Right now there isn’t a lot to say about the Timbers’ pursuit of Jozy Altidore, as it’s not even known if he will sign with MLS much less land in Portland.
If Altidore signs with MLS, it’s likely he will follow a similar process to Jermaine Jones. Likely as a DP "of a certain threshold," Altidore almost certainly won’t be subject to the allocation order. As a result, if the process is the same as it was for Jones (never a sure assumption), once Altidore is signed the league will receive bids for the percentage of Jozy’s contract and transfer fee the bidding teams are willing to pay. If two leading teams make the same offer (most likely the full salary and transfer fee), MLS would allocate Altidore via a blind draw.
In any event, pursuing Altidore is a high-risk, high-reward proposition for the Timbers. Fanendo Adi was quite good in his debut in the Rose City and Altidore, while likely having a higher ceiling than Adi, has been on very poor form at Sunderland. While there is every chance Jozy could come to MLS and return to the dominant form that landed him in the Premier League, if he were to arrive and continue his Sunderland form he would be a major bust.
If the Timbers land Altidore, the reality is they would likely look to move Adi. Altidore and Adi would be redundant and the Timbers would need to free a designated-player slot.
Nobody outside the Timbers’ front office knows how favorable Portland’s chances of landing Altidore are, but the bid itself is an aggressive move by the Timbers’ front office as it shows a willingness to take a chance on Altidore even if it means parting ways with the known- and liked-quantity that is Adi.