So how many have heard the different sides of those who want or don’t want, MLS to move to a single table for its regular season? You know, those who say that it would make more sense than two conferences and if there was a single table, then MLS would logically schedule less matches and that would make them all more important? There are also those out there who say that we don’t need to copy the rest of the world, that the current system is fine and that through expansion, it will even out and the playoffs will make more sense once more clubs enter the league and yadda, yadda, yadda.
I have been thinking about this for some time and I really don’t buy too many of the arguments. I honestly do not think that the single table theory would be “magic wand” that brings more people to the matches or that over night, makes the matches more meaningful. I feel this way for several reasons.
The primary reason is that in a single table, those clubs that are out of playoff contention, would have nothing to play for. In fact, in American professional sports, fans are accustomed to the club that finishes last actually getting a special reward for that failure, the first pick in a draft or the best chance at first pick. Overseas, clubs who finish at the bottom are tossed from the league, punished for their failures as a club to compete. Getting booted from the EPL, regardless of the “golden parachute fund” that clubs receive when they are relegated, means that the club misses out on millions of dollars and changes how the entire club operates. Most of the time, players are sold off to cover the losses or because the club cannot afford to pay them at the EPL salaries.
Until MLS or whom ever is running Pro Soccer in America, introduces a type of relegation system (which will never happen in the US) the true single table will never operate effectively. Until clubs at the bottom are faced with getting sent down to the USL and losing out on revenue that comes with being a club in MLS, that is when the clubs like Columbus and RSL and Chivas USA (in their first season) will fight tooth and nail up to the end. Because the relegation system will never be implemented, we won’t see that.
One point that was made by MLS Commissioner Don Garber was that the playoffs that MLS uses sort of replaces the relegation system and makes every match count. Because in the last week of the league, 11 of the 12 clubs were still in contention for a playoff spot, clubs were fighting for their lives. I agree with Garber on his assessment of the current situation, but I don’t see it working down the road. My thinking is that right now, when you have 6 clubs to a conference, with 75% of each conference making the playoffs, yes, at the end of almost every season, you are going to have everyone alive at the final week of the season. The problem will really start next season, when a 13th club enters the league and they start expanding all the way to 16 or 18 clubs.
With more clubs in the league and in the conferences, the playoffs will be out of reach of more clubs, earlier in the season. If we hit the 18 club level that some are talking about, or even the lower 16 level, without expanding the number of playoff teams, (which I do not suggest nor support) those clubs that truly have dogshit seasons, like Chivas USA last season, will be out of the playoff contention by early August. If a FC Dallas or a New England Revolution run out to a record of 9-0-1 in their first ten matches, which could doom a Columbus Crew that maybe goes 3-3-4 to start their season.
Once we get 16 or 18 clubs in the league, but still only advance 4 to the playoffs per conference, we will get clubs that, already being out of contention, will end up starting their reserves for matches. While this might be great for the club’s future development, MLS will get a problem of the possibility that fans would stay away in even larger numbers, as they wouldn’t care about watching FC Dallas play the Columbus Crew reserves. Having these types of matches at the end of the season, or worse yet, at the beginning of August, would definitely make the matches mean even less than they do now.
This gets us back to how to provide incentives for the lower conference clubs, once they are out of the playoff hunt and how to make more matches meaningful. One way to do this is to still grant the #5 clubs something, like a berth in the MLS vs. MFL tournament. Considering that this tournament is thought to be getting started next season and we would all be foolish to think that all 13 MLS clubs would be taking part, MLS could take a page from their European counterparts. MLS could still have the top four from each conference qualify for the playoffs, like normal, then have the next team each conference qualify as well for the MLS vs. MFL tournament. Again, right now, we would not see the benefit of this arrangement, as this would only leave out three clubs. However, when MLS does get up to 16 or 18 clubs, having the top 5 clubs in each conference be the only clubs to qualify for the tournament, does still give the bottom 3 or 4 clubs something to fight for all the way to the end of the regular season.
I know that Garber & Co. are trying to make MLS as recognizable as possible for Americans, so that more Americans get interested and follow MLS, but one thing I do hope that they do not copy from the other sports is the wasting of half the league, which having the final two tournament berths outside the playoff level would remove that. It would provide late season drama, something that I do think would put people in the stadiums for the matches.
A second way for MLS to increase the quality and worth of each match would be to lobby for 2 more berths into the CONCACAF Champions Cup, or whatever the rumored CONCACAF Champions League is. If MLS were to send the MLS Cup winner, the Supporters Shield winner, plus the two clubs with the highest point totals of the regular season, who did not win the MLS Cup. That in conjunction with the 5th conference spot getting a berth in the MLS vs. MFL tournament, would make the clubs fight harder for every point. We would see more attacking soccer down the stretch of the season and wouldn’t see Houston win 2 out of their last 7 matches, because the 11 points that they dropped at the end of the season could make the difference of whether or not they play in the CONCACAF tournaments or not.
MLS needs to start working with the Mexican Première Division and the other CONCACAF nations to get CONCACAF to support a larger regional tournament. They are starting this by the MLS vs. MFL tournament, and if the rumors are correct, they already have had CONCACAF get its act in gear with a larger tournament. The biggest point of action will be if MLS and or CONCACAF can get some major TV and promotional sponsorship attached to the regional tournament. Get ESPN or FSC or Gol TV to televise the matches. Have someone like Ford (ok, bad example as they just reported $5.3 billion in loses) or McDonalds or Cingular to sponsor the tournament. Get some money behind the event and get some cash injected into it. Once clubs feel the sting of not making the tournament, they will fight harder to get into it.
Once MLS gets larger, we are going to see more and more matches that are played at half speed, because there will be no incentives for some of the clubs. Give everyone something to play for, every match, all season long. You do that and you will get attractive soccer, something that more people will want to see. That Mr. Garber, will get more fans in the seats.