MLS 2010 schedule is a big step forward

Major_League_Soccer-logo-BB49EA9EC4-seeklogo.comTwo new modifications to the MLS schedule for 2010 further demonstrate the growing maturity of the league and soccer in America. With the addition of the Philadelphia Union franchise next year, MLS will have for the first time a balanced schedule like most major soccer leagues. Another first will see the league take a two-week break during the group stages of the World Cup and also skip games on semi-final and final days. Small shifts to be sure, but a big step forward for the league.

Marrying American sports league tradition with world soccer league structure has been—and always will be—a challenge for MLS. All major U.S. team sports have a regular season followed by knock-out playoff rounds, with the ultimate champion the last remaining survivor. In most major soccer leagues around the world, that two-stage process is broken into two distinct competitions, with the league champion crowned after each team plays every other at home and away in what Americans term the regular season, and the knock-out phase is a separate tournament that runs throughout the season.

The Union will be MLS’s 16th franchise, making a truly balanced schedule a realistic option as each team will now play 30 games, once at home and once away against each of the 15 other teams in the league. The team that finishes those 30 games with the most points won’t be the MLS Cup champion—that will still go to the playoff round winner—but it will provide a solid benchmark to measure which team can lay claim to being the league’s best.

This move wasn’t just about finally reaching a viable number, as a reasonable argument can be made that prioritizing local and regional rivalries through an unbalanced schedule is a way to boost interest games. But FIFA has a strong preference for balanced schedules and 18-team leagues (which MLS will reach in 2011 with the addition of franchises in Portland, OR and Vancouver). Bring the MLS schedule more in line with other major leagues will raise its standing in the eyes of the sports world governing body.

Not scheduling matches during the World Cup has always seemed like a no-brainer, but a lack of financial muscle and constraints on the availability of game venues have always prevented MLS from major disruptions to its schedule. MLS officials repeatedly trotted out tired spin that it would be able to capitalize on increased interest in the sport during the World Cup, but clearly, its product paled in comparison. Now, with more team-owned and soccer-only stadiums, the league can finally take firm control of its schedule and skip MLS games during the group stages.

This has been a big year for the growth of soccer in America, both on and off the field. The sport is still not close to the major team sports like football, basketball, or baseball. But MLS taking greater control over its schedule and moving it closer to those of other major soccer leagues is just more evidence that soccer is clearly maturing into a significant presence on America’s sports calendar

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