Every year as part of the events surrounding the MLS Cup final; a busy week filled with media events, parties, and general merriment, they slip in an owners meeting. This year the key issues at the owners meeting were surrounding the addition of one more playoff game, a second leg to the conference semi-finals, and playing the MLS Cup final at the home of the higher seeded finalist. These are all expected moves and probably will be seen as improvements by much of the league. Playing the final at the home of the higher seed makes the regular season matter just a bit more and that is important and the extra leg in the conference semi-final actually helps to make the playoffs make a bit more sense rather than going from one leg, to two legs, and then back to one for the cup final.
The real key issue of today's meeting though is the regular season schedule. It has long been made clear that the league intended to switch to an unbalanced schedule for next season with the addition of a 19th team in Montreal. The reasoning for the change was laid out as being to increase local rivalries and to cut down on the toll that increased travel across such a large continent has on teams. It was also done to allow for a slightly shorter regular season than the 36 games that a balanced schedule would have called for.It appears that tonight the owners voted on an unbalanced schedule that would see teams play opponents in their own conference 3 times each. So for Toronto FC that would mean 3 meetings with each of their Eastern conference rivals. That is the decent part of the schedule since if the MLS wants two conferences to be the way going forward then they should focus on increasing conference games so that the title race has more meaning. The downside of this schedule is that you would only get to play teams from the other conference 1 time each and there would be 1 or 2 teams that you would not play at all in the league in a given season.
From a TFC perspective the good news is we get more games against the New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew, and most importantly the Montreal Impact. The bad news is that we could have seasons where there is no league game in Toronto against the Vancouver Whitecaps, or even worse no game against them at all. If the schedule comes out sometime around the new year and it tells us that Toronto will only be playing Vancouver once in the league and that will be at BC Place fans are not going to be very happy.
The other issue with the introduction of an unbalanced schedule is that there is no way to make this even. If there are going to be 1 or 2 teams from the other conference that you do not play at all how fair is it if say one team in the east misses out on playing the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake while another team ends up missing out on matches against much weaker teams in the west like Vancouver, or say the Colorado Rapids? The other issue is one team could end up with a lot more tough road games against the other conference while another team played all their tough games at home.
If this ends up being the way that the schedule is drawn up then each year fans will be left looking at the schedule when it comes out to try and decide if they got screwed over or not, and in most cases they will probably end up feeling it was cruel to them. The beauty of a balanced schedule is that it is just that, balanced. You get to play everyone at home once and everyone away once so there is no room for fans to feel hard done by the schedule. Now that the league has insisted on the move to an unbalanced schedule there will be a few very unhappy teams each year with how their schedule ends up.
Will update when the news is made official but this is looking like the structure for next years schedule at least. Should be a 34 game schedule leaving room for other competitions like the USOC, Voyageurs Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League as well as for the league to finally respect FIFA's international windows.