MLS’s Poor Scheduling Decisions Undermine the Excitement of Playoffs

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.

26 thoughts on “MLS’s Poor Scheduling Decisions Undermine the Excitement of Playoffs”

  1. Well put. This is meant to be the most important part of the season and it is coming together an an extremely half-assed way.

  2. Excellent article. As much as some people in the league and outside the league think that Garber has done good for MLS, I’ve felt he brought to much NFL vision and ideas to a sport that many times wasn’t in the best interest of the league and fans.

    Management (MLS – BOD and Chairman)I feel need to have some soccer background and understanding to manage the complexities of meshing the world game (FIFA, etc) and competition with other sports in the USA for viewership and support the fan base too.

    I’ve never really been enthusiast of Garber and the decision that MLS directors have made in the past.

    MLS needs to send people to Germany’s Bundesliga and DFB and England’s FA to learn how to manage a football (soccer) league.

    1. As a side note, MLS and Bundesliga agreed a deal in 2007 to share best practices. Nothing much has been heard of that relationship since, which is a shame.

  3. See this further proves MLS must be on a European schedule.

    MLS stands a much better chance against the NBA & NHL than they do against the World Series, NFL & College Football.

    You solve this problem by simply putting your schedule out as early as possible. That way you own the dates.

    1. “Own” the dates you don’t think the networks would move MLS matches for high profile College football, NFL, or MLB games? God help MLS if LeBron does something ESPN definitely cover that.

    2. re: “MLS stands a much better chance against the NBA & NHL”

      Don’t agree on better chance against NBA. NBA is very popular not only here in the USA but also abroad in many countries.

      Agree against NHL. When they went on strike, practically no one cared.

    1. Agree, except the general non soccer fan/public who MLS (and TV) are trying to attract, love play-offs as it’s part of US culture in all other sports played.

      My idea would be if the play-off system has to stay then have the top 8 teams move on and divide them into 2 groups of 4. The top two teams of each group move on and are separated (via draw) and play like the WC semi-final (home and away). The final two teams – 1 game championship. Since I don’t believe playoffs will be done away with, I would rather see this format.

      Also, I believe that the US Soccer Fed need to promote and build up the US Open Cup.

      Then have the Open Cup winner vs. the MLS Cup winner play each other before the next season starts (like the German Super Cup).

  4. The MLS Cup playoffs should be played during the season like the Champions league, but have it start in the latter half of the season so the final takes place like a week after the last regular season match. Have all the match ups be home and away fixtures. It would be like the Champions League minus the group stage well the group stage would be the previous regular season. Play the matches on the weekends by themselves no other MLS games on MLS Cup weekends.

  5. Level of play will decrease? Can i get any worse?

    And before everyone starts crying eurosnob, i was at the game between the union and KC last week. It was hard to watch; the technical ability is atrocious. First touches in and around the box that people i know consistently best, hopeful crosses nowhere near dangerous, bombing the ball forward often to the other team, and so on and so forth.

    Ive heard all this hype about MLS improving; im not seeing it.

    1. I agree. I’d like to add that when the MLS started, people generally didn’t expect play to be top notch (but it wasn’t that bad either). In 2000/2001 play did improve around the league and teams. I found that in 2005/2006 the MLS took a step backwards. I feel that the game play and quality just hasn’t made the kinds of improvements it should have over a 17 year span.

      I don’t expect it to be anywhere near the level of EPL, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, La Liga or Serie A but I do expect the play to be better than the rest of CONCACAF leagues.

      I’ve read that some oversee head coaches who have coached in MLS have stated that MLS play and games are chaotic and hectic (and disorganized).

      I’ve seen some good MLS games but seen far more poor quality games.

      I believe this is due to a variety of reasons including, reliance on College draft/players, no strong youth development teams by MLS teams, no strong 2nd and 3rd divisions, play styles copy to much like other CONCACAF leagues, not developing strong intercity programs, poor coaching at youth levels.

      There has to been a paradigm shift by US Soccer Federation and MLS for the game to take the next step in quality.

  6. Look, here’s the thing with the MLS. If you are shooting for “US fan who has never followed a foreign league” then the whack playoff system is basically what said fan expects.

    But if you want to appeal to us “eurosnobs” or whatever, the setup as is has almost zero appeal. When you are used to sweating the result of an August match because you are thinking about possible relegation, or goal differential, or European play qualification, then the glorified 8 month string of exhibitions that the MLS plays are hard to care about.

    But here’s the problem – it is way too damned easy to follow pretty much any team or league in Europe anymore. I’d expect that the fan of a big EPL team can more easily watch his club on TV than even your average MLS fan. This isn’t like the days before the Fox coverage started about 15 years ago when you’d have to find a pub, or muck about with PPV, or all that.

    In other words, you have a market with few barriers to entry as far as football fandom. Overseas you get a higher in-match quality of play AND much more going on in terms of meaningful stuff to care about.

    It’s a dilemma, and as far as the TV product you are simultaneously competing with other American sports (all of whom have far longer traditions on their side) as well as the international game.

  7. This came up last year when TV ratings for the final were disappointing. That game was right up against the Alabama/Georgia SEC Championship Game (which was a de facto semi final, and really those were the two best teams last season). Weekends in the fall are the worst times to be on if you aren’t baseball or football. I completely agree with the posters who would prefer to go against the NBA and NHL. If you time things to have the season end at the beginning of May you are up against the end of the NBA regular season and the first round of the playoffs. This is not a big deal IMO.

    The most compelling reason to stick with the current calendar is the weather up north in the winter months. Who is up for a bunch of recreations of USA/Cost Rica?

    1. No matter what calendar you use for a MLS soccer season, it’s going to be impacted by weather. The south is almost insanely from June to September, which is also the rainy season where thunderstorms and hurricanes are common. There’s no one solution that would satisfy everyone weather-wise.

      1. Oh yea. The South would benefit greatly from a FIFA calendar. But playing soccer in the heat and rain is more doable than a snowstorm. From a selfish point of view I’d love a MLS team in Miami and a FIFA calendar, but is that really the best for the league?

        1. But what’s the difference between a tropical storm and a snow storm? Both conditions would cancel a game.

          Maybe what’s best for the league is to split it into two — a southern league and a northern league. The southern league would play in the winter/spring, and a northern league would play in the spring/summer. The southern champion could then play against the northern champion to declare an overall winner.

          1. The difference is that the northern states get multiple snowstorms every year. Tropical Storms/Hurricanes are not guaranteed every year. Knock on wood….South Florida hasn’t had a storm make landfall since 2006 when Wilma hit. I hope that streak continues…

  8. I watched about an hour of the Sounders/Colorado game last night. That plastic pitch makes those games unwatchable. The ball is bouncing funny which forces the teams to adapt a kick-and-run style of football…it was simply awful!

    I understand the difficulty in the logistics of changing to real grass in Seattle (sharing the field w/ the NFL team), but this has to happen, sooner rather than later.

    Same with Portland and any other teams using, god knows why, fake grass.

  9. Good piece. Sorry the Chicago Fire could not be in the playoffs btw. Playoff scheduling is almost always decided by the networks. NBC and ESPN seem to view late night EST slots as better for the West Coast audience that watches in greater numbers. Having the Sounders now with two early round games made the networks happy.

    On a side note a friend of mine who lives in the US but is from Eastern Europe originally was amazed at the recent Seattle v. Portland match with the crowd being so involved in the game. That crowd also helps attract viewers.

    The entire MLS schedule and playoffs may soon radically change but be certain the networks will have the last say in the decision making.

  10. What do you want? MLS has no ratings. It has no pull what so ever. If NBC or any other of its network providers has a problem with the schedule then MLS has to follow their guidance. Its that simple. Suck it up and deal with it.

  11. As in Orlando City fan who is getting ready to join the MLS I would push for a winter schedule. You really do not want to have to go to a game during the day in the summer in Florida. I know snow storms and things can be a big deal but really if you think about it they heat the field up or at least a should. NFL and college fields usually have a heater underneath the grass that can heat it up to melt the ice off unless it’s in the middle of a snowstorm. But if that is the case just look to what other countries do during a snowstorm. There is a reason that the scarf is the pennant of soccer. Soccer seems to be played in all conditions but when you watch EPL it’s mostly cold. While I enjoy going to games in what is my off season for sports I think it would be better for the league if we had more of a universal time frame. No one would really take us seriously if we had to stop our league in the middle of a World Cup and still tried to call ourselves a top league. As a new soccer fan I can tell you that your best bet is to go head to head with basketball which has over a hundred games a season and NHL and beginning of baseball than to ever try to compete with football. In certain sections of the country college football is more important than NFL and college football generally ends at the beginning of December with bowl season until January. This is a good time to start the MLS season. Because by that point some teams won’t be doing as well and fans can change their sport. This is the problem with living in the USA. We have so many choices of really high level sports to watch. I’d can’t think of another country that could boast such a thing.

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