By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Mar 25, 2020) US Soccer Players – The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust much fear and uncertainty upon the entire globe. The near-global shutdown has affected nearly every corner of the planet. Mostly stuck at home, we’re watching businesses and educational establishments try to reinvent themselves or formulate possible solutions on how to stay afloat during this time.
Major League Soccer has, of course, found itself caught up in the pandemic fallout. The league shut down operations after just two weekends of play. The announcement came as fans were waiting for Inter Miami’s home debut against the Galaxy and the early clash of contenders with Atlanta playing Kansas City. When the schedule resumes is an open question, a small part of the bigger return to normal life.
Perhaps this slowdown offers the league an opportunity to reinvent itself. While the league has grown substantially since its inception in 1996, the one constant is the calendar. More specifically, trying to get the calendar to work. This season started in late February, with the final set for October 4. That’s part of tightening the season after several years of ending it in December.
For a multitude of reasons, the calendar has caused problems. Most notably, it does not align with the FIFA calendar, creating club vs country clashes. This slowdown is the chance for the league to deal with that issue. The league set May 10 as the date for resuming the 2020 season, but that now looks optimistic at best.
MLS should take this opportunity to change its calendar to late summer-to-spring but with a twist. MLS should follow Liga MX’s lead and have two seasons per calendar year. The first season of the league’s calendar would be the fall season, while the spring campaign would wrap up the league’s year. This is a formula that works for Mexico’s topflight and would also have advantages north of the border.
Liga MX was not necessarily in the same situation as MLS when they revamped their schedule. Before making the calendar switch, Liga MX seasons began in late summer and finished in spring, like the majority of leagues around the world. Liga MX even had relegation, but the system was, and is, complicated. One bad season will not condemn clubs to the second division. So, seasons dragged on.
European teams have plenty to play for aside from the league championship during their respective campaigns. Most leagues relegate more than just one team, based on that season alone. Leagues have their own cup tournaments. Beyond its own borders there are UEFA’s Champions League and the Europa League. Clubs at all levels, strong, decent, mediocre, to terrible, have something to play for.
In the mid-1990s, though, the Mexican league did not have that. It was the league, relegation, and that’s it. To make its product better, the Mexican league switched to a two-seasons-per-calendar year format in 1996. Starting with the Invierno 96 season, Mexico has featured short seasons. The radical change made the games count more. Invierno and Verano titles meant just as much as any other championship. The league eventually dropped the Invierno (Winter) and Verano (Summer) monikers and went with the current Apertura (Opening) and Clausura (Closing) titles.
What drives the short-season format is the playoffs. Teams are in a mad sprint from the start of the season right on through to the final week to try to get into the postseason. A pair of losses could really deal a blow to a team while a win or two could catapult them into a strong playoff position. Every game matters. In the Apertura 2019 season, for instance, three non-playoff teams finished within three points of the eighth and final seed. One result that went the wrong way could have put those teams in the playoffs. To top it off, Monterrey was that eighth seed and wound up winning the championship. Anything goes in Liga MX.
MLS meanwhile has some of that craziness, but most of it is limited to the postseason. The every-game-matters issue is not one that MLS has as part of its fabric. The Chicago Fire missed the playoffs by three points, but most every other playoff team was a distant memory down the stretch. When teams play for their lives, that is when the best moments happen. Splitting the year in two would bring more of those moments to MLS.
The format would not be too complicated and bad weather – the biggest factor going against MLS playing through the winter – would be mostly avoided. MLS could shut it down for good now, and reconvene in June for training camp. The league could start in late July for its first short season.
Teams would play each conference opponent once, which means 11 conference games for this season and 12 for the first short season of 2021. The league then would just have to figure out how many games the season would run and fill out the schedules with games against teams from the other conference. The season would run from the final weekend of July through early November, when the playoffs would start. That would be enough time to fit in, say, 16 or 18 games, even with international breaks. The postseason format would remain the same, and would take less than one month to complete. Last year’s playoffs ran from started October 19 and ran through November 10. MLS Cup under the short-season format would fall in December, which was the case as recently as 2018, so no change there.
The second season would have to start in late January to allow enough time to wrap the regular season up in May, with playoffs following after. That would be a sticking point, but several teams play in warm-weather locales (two LA teams, San Jose, Houston, Dallas, Orlando, Miami) as well as Atlanta’s dome and Montreal’s occasional home game at Olympic Stadium. MLS could front-load the calendar to allow for teams in those locations to host the majority of games in late January and early February. By March, the weather would be as much of a factor as it is now. That would avoid what the NASL did by splitting seasons but starting in April.
The biggest payoff for MLS would be aligning to a calendar shared by the majority of the planet. MLS teams would be able to compete in the Champions League on the same footing as other teams around Concacaf. The league would not have to play through summer tournaments such as the World Cup and the Gold Cup.
It may seem like a radical idea. Still, all anyone has to do is watch Liga MX and see the quality product that has been put out south of the border for more than two decades to see that a radical idea could work.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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