Last week’s press release announcing that MLS will take a two week break during the World Cup Finals group stage has stirred some debate from supporters of the league. However, hidden at the end of that same press release is news that all MLS fans must be pleased to read. Next season, all sixteen clubs will play a balanced schedule – facing each of the other fifteen teams twice, once at home, once away.
For the first time in the history of MLS, the 30 game regular season schedule will be equivalent for ever team. This milestone for the league will finally put to rest the imbalance that currently exists for clubs that, as a whole, are competing for the same eight playoff spots. No longer like the NFL or Major League Baseball schedules, MLS’ new regular season will further resemble the best European leagues that it strives to model.
The next step for the MLS schedule makers is to get rid of the curious, albeit infrequent, cases of home-and-home series within the season. An example of this occurs this evening, as the Colorado Rapids host the San Jose Earthquakes just 5 days after they visited Northern California. For the Rapids, this comes on the heels of a home-and-home series they finished earlier this month against Toronto FC. In all, there were nine cases in 2009 of teams playing each other in consecutive or nearly consecutive games. If you care to count the US Open Cup, add three more occurrences to the tally.
I don’t see any real positives to including these scheduling quirks in 2010 and beyond. When asked about playing home-and-home series in the regular season, Colorado Rapids coach Gary Smith remarked “I’m not sure there are many advantages. I think the fact that you go away then come back home is a balanced schedule in that respect, but I’m not sure the players enjoy it too much. You can sometimes get a staid affair and the teams know too much about each other.”
Playing the same team two games in a row can present additional problems. Player injuries and suspensions can put one team at a disadvantage for both season’s meetings instead of perhaps just one. Perhaps a team struggles earlier in the year, but improves with the summer signing period – is it fair for one club to meet them twice in June and another club to meet them twice in September? Using Colorado as an example, their team captain, Pablo Mastroeni, was suspended for 3 games earlier this month. As a result, he missed both games with Toronto this season. Maybe the 3 points TFC earned in their second game against the Rapids helps them sneak into the playoffs this season – ahead of the Rapids, no less.
On the flip side, getting to face the same team twice in a short amount of time allows you additional training time to focus on your opponent. Coach Frank Yallop of the San Jose Earthquakes even sees the home-and-home series as an opportunity for the team to prepare for the post-season. ”I guess it is similar to the playoffs, you play teams back to back a lot in that situation. The first game becomes important because it sets you up for the second one. But you still have to prepare for each game.”
Being better prepared for your opponent can lead to a better performance on the field, something all fans should look forward to with anticipation. Of course, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt – perhaps a physically demanding first game will lead to a different mindset going into the second game. Earthquakes captain Jason Hernandez knows all to well how this can affect a team facing an opponent in successive games; “I really don’t see it as an advantage at all. I think going back-to-back, it can get a bit too personal. They might come in and get a good result, then you have to go back to their home and fight twice as hard to get those points back.”
I see no reason to continue with these home-and-home series in 2010 and beyond. If MLS wants to really have a fair and balanced schedule, split the season into two 15 game schedules that essentially mirror each other, and save the two-game series for the post-season.