Portland Timbers have clinched their first-ever Major League Soccer playoff game, which — for Timbers supporters — is a euphoric and monumental achievement. What makes their November 7 playoff match even more enticing is the possibility that if Seattle Sounders beats Colorado Rapids tonight, the Timbers will host the Seattle Sounders in a super-sized reincarnation of the greatest soccer club rivalry in the United States.
The November 7 game will be the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal. At the end of the night, one team will advance. The other will go home. There may be extra time. There may be penalty kicks. There certainly will be drama, and evidentially it’s going to be an occasion that even the most casual soccer fan won’t want to miss.
The problem is, however, that people may miss it. The November 7 date has been already been circled on the calendar of every Oregon Ducks fan since the 2013 schedule was released last spring. On the 7th in Palo Alto, Stanford plays Oregon in a game that will most likely decide the Pac-12 title, and play a massive role in shaping the National Championship picture.
And with that, the Timbers just lost their entire casual viewing audience.
Merritt Paulson and the Portland organization must be livid. Why would MLS schedule its game on the biggest sporting day in Oregon this year? And why would a league struggling for national TV ratings put possibly the marquee MLS game of the year in the same time slot as the one sporting event that is sure to dwarf it, locally, regionally and nationally?
It’s a worst-case scenario for the Timbers, MLS, and soccer in the United States.
NBC Sports Network, one of MLS’ two national TV partners, doesn’t want to broadcast the game on a Wednesday night, their marquee “Rivalry Night” of hockey programming. And instead, they wanted the game late on Thursday night, when they are usually bereft of prime programming.
It’s telling that the league finally released the full playoff schedule on the morning of the first playoff game. It took MLS that long to put all the pieces in place for their premier event, a schedule that is usually planned six to eight months in advance.
Up until the last minute, the league was considering a radical change of schedule that would include playing through the November FIFA international break.
As it stands now, the playoff schedule is staggered so poorly with three games in the space of seven days, four in the space of ten days and, for some teams, a two-week break before their final game, and another two week break before MLS Cup.
The MLS regular season finished last Sunday. The Wild Card games are this Wednesday and Thursday. The first legs of the Conference Semifinals are this Saturday and Sunday. The second legs are the following Wednesday and Thursday. Then the first legs of the Conference Finals will be on the weekend after that.
The schedule is jam-packed to the point of exhaustion. Then MLS and their playoffs will take a break for the FIFA international break, and play the second legs of the Conference Finals two weeks after the first leg. Two weeks after that, it’s the MLS Cup.
If you are a Wild Card team that makes the Conference Finals, you have to play, on average, once every two and a half days for the first week and a half of the playoffs. If you’re a number one seed, like the Timbers, your reward is a three-day break in between the home leg of the Conference Semis, and the first leg of the Conference Final.
All of the second legs of the semifinals, often MLS’s most exciting games, are in the middle of the week. That decreases ticket sales, TV audience, and general interest.
For instance, Sporting Kansas City, who are up there with Seattle and Portland for the best home atmosphere in MLS, won’t see their second leg against New England Revolution on national television. Same goes for the regular season champion, and MLS’s most star-studded team, the New York Red Bulls.
LA’s second-leg game against Real Salt Lake is on ESPN2 on Thursday. You know what’s on ESPN that night? That Oregon Stanford clash of the titans.
With so many games in so few days, the level of play will decrease as general fatigue sets in. The two-week break in between the conference finals will disconnect the event and give it an odd, separated stop-start dimension.
It’s also strange that MLS takes a break for FIFA, which they don’t usually do. On this break, a grand total of zero MLS players will play competitive international games. MLS’s only player involved in a World Cup qualifying playoff is Alvaro Rios of Chicago, and the Fire aren’t even in the playoffs.
MLS knew months ago that there would be this problem. So why didn’t they play two extra midweek sets of games, and set up the playoff games for four consecutive weekends, take the FIFA break, and then play the MLS Cup Final?
Or why didn’t MLS start the season a week early and adopt the same schedule? Why didn’t they build a diagram of the schedule in July, figure out something was wrong, and fix it?
Yes, MLS got some bad luck, like NFL games ensuring that there will be gridiron lines on Seattle’s CenturyLink Field for their home leg of the semifinal if they advance, and New England’s Gillette Stadium for their East semifinal home leg.
One of the only reasons the league is considering moving to the European calendar is to avoid conflicts like these. Sometimes, there are no good options. But if MLS wants to be considered a serious and professional American sports league, it can’t be considered helpless, and it isn’t.
But by yesterday, when the league finally considered a drastic change, it was far too late in the game. The result is that it makes MLS look incompetent, and the playoffs are set up to fail. After all, the playoffs are the reward for MLS’s regular season, conference schedule. The playoffs are thrilling. The stadiums are full, the pressure is on, and American soccer is showcased at its best.
MLS needs to milk the playoffs for all they’re worth. Instead, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.