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What the MLS schedule could look like under the new rules

Not everyone will play everyone anymore, so how do we decide who plays who?

2019 MLS Cup - Toronto FC v Seattle Sounders Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

Early Monday morning, MLS announced that expansion teams Inter Miami FC and Nashville SC will be playing in the Eastern and Western Conferences respectively. Even more interesting is that they also announced how the schedule for each team will be built for the 2020 year.

In 2020, teams will still play 34 games. To get to that number, they will be playing home and away against the other 12 teams in their conference (24 games) and they will only play 10 of the 13 teams in the other conference. Thus, 2020 will mark the first time that MLS teams will not play every other team throughout the season.

This begs the question, how will MLS decide who doesn’t play who? Well, let’s break down some of the options:

The “Let’s Make Fans Mad” Methods

These two methods would help MLS continue to rake in the cash from TV viewers and ticket sales, but fans probably won’t like how it plays out.

Option 1: MLS Picks

One way MLS could decide the East vs. West matchups is simple—they just decide. MLS handpicks the match-ups because they want to make people watch.

What it would mean: If MLS went with this method, it means watching Atlanta United vs LAFC followed by Seattle vs Toronto on a prime time Saturday night while Vancouver played Cincinnati in the “who cares” game of the week earlier that afternoon. Getting to handpick the match-ups would be great for TV (and the $), but how will Atlanta fans feel when they have to play every major Western Conference team every single year?

Would it happen? Slim to none (but MLS likes money...)

Option 2: MLS doesn’t tell us

There is always chance that MLS will just come out with a schedule and whoever is on it is who the teams play. When asked how they decided, they could just say that they have a system and leave it at that.

What it would mean: Depending on what was going on behind the scenes, this wouldn’t be all bad. MLS could have a good system and just not feel like telling people, but that’s weird. What is more likely to happen is fans getting mad because something seems fishy when a team like LAFC doesn’t have to play Atlanta because MLS wants to make sure they make it to the playoffs. On the flip side, LAFC fans would get mad if they somehow didn’t play Columbus or Cincinnati claiming that MLS wanted to make it hard on them and get marquee match-ups during the season.

Bottom line, soccer has a history of corruption worldwide, so let’s be transparent with the schedule making.

Would it happen? (Hopefully) impossible

The “Let’s be Fair” Methods

These two methods would allow teams to feel like the schedule was made in an effort to be fair to everyone.

Option 1: Have a Random Draw

Nothing screams soccer like having a draw to decide what is going to happen. If it works for the World Cup, why can’t it work for MLS?

What it would mean: If there was a random draw, some teams would certainly end up with harder schedules than others, but people probably wouldn’t complain as much as the methods listed above. Plus, it would help MLS tap into the traditions of world soccer because they do draws for everything. To top it all off, it’s another thing MLS could televise or live stream and maybe even make some sponsorship money.

Would it happen? Unlikely

Option 2: Make it a Rotation

Instead of making it crazy complicated, MLS could just rotate the teams that people don’t play every year, and if the schedule ends up being hard one year, it’ll be easy another year. This is how the NFL decides its NFC vs AFC games each year.

What it would look like: MLS would just come out with a multi-year road map saying who wasn’t going to play who each year and just let it play out. To make it seem even less random, they could make it regional by saying the Colorado Rapids wouldn’t play NYRB, NYCFC, or New England this year. Then not play Miami, Orlando, or Atlanta in 2021, and Chicago, Cincinnati, and Columbus in 2022. Doing it on a rotation would keep things fair enough and make teams feel more unlucky than screwed by the system if they end up with a harder year than other.

The tricky part of this one is that there are more expansion teams coming in the next few years and MLS hasn’t said how that will effect conferences or schedule make up in the future. As a result, they wouldn’t be able to project the schedule forward like the example states. If they are willing to commit to it, however, they could still make it work with the expansion teams.

Would it happen? Definitely possible. If it works for NFL, why not MLS?

The “We Want Parity” Methods

Major League Soccer likes being a league that encourages parity. Instead of having the same top couple of teams every single year like most European leagues, MLS brags about it being a place where you can go from last to first in a year. Making the schedule encourage that could be another way to keep that up.

Option 1: The NFL Method

In NFL schedule making, teams play their division twice and an AFC and and NFC division to make 14 games. To decide the last two, a team plays the other two teams in their conference (AFC/NFC) that finished in their spot in the division (1st-4th) that they aren’t already playing from the 14 games already decided. For example, the Broncos finished 3rd in the AFC West last year and play the AFC South this year. That means they also play the 3rd place teams from the AFC East (Bills) and North (Browns) this season. This encourages parity in the NFL because the good teams have to play two more games against good teams while the bad teams get two extra games against bad teams. Plus, it gives you some good marquee match-ups when division winners face-off.

MLS could create a system similar to this to encourage parity and get some good match-ups.

What it would look like: The schedule would be made so that teams that finish last don’t play the teams that finish 1-3 in the other conference, and the teams that finish 1st don’t play 11-13. This would let Cincinnati avoid LAFC, Seattle, and RSL, and LAFC wouldn’t get to play Cincinnati, Orlando, or Columbus. You could then find a way to project this across spots 2-12 in the standings (the math gets too tricky for this writer) and voila, you have a set schedule method that you just have to plug teams into at the end of each season. This would give you the match-ups you got in the first method on this article, but people wouldn’t be as mad about it.

Would it happen? Definitely possible

Option 2: Make it a Partial Draw

Make it so that a playoff team from the West plays all the playoff teams from the East, and then fill out the rest with a random draw off the teams that didn’t make the playoffs. Of course, you flip the idea with teams that didn’t make the playoffs playing the other teams that didn’t make it and then filling out the rest of the schedule with the draw between playoff and non-playoff teams.

What it would look like: For the Rapids being a non-playoff team, they would play Chicago, Montreal, Columbus, Orlando, Cincinnati, Miami, and four random Eastern Conference playoff teams. Like the method before it, it allows for marquee match-ups like LAFC vs Atlanta, and it would encourage more parity as lower table teams would be given a slightly easier schedule. Plus, it adopts the soccer tradition of using draws for everything!

Would it happen? Not impossible, but it’s my favorite of the actually plausible methods

The “Never Going to Happen, But Wouldn’t it be Cool?” Method

Have a Schedule Draft

Just stick with me for a second. What if teams got to draft their opponents? It could be a snake draft with the worst teams going first and alternating by conference, So Cincinnati picks first, then Vancouver, then Orlando, then SKC, etc. until you get to LAFC. Then round two starts with LAFC and goes back to Cincinnati and so on. Make a rule that teams can’t play each other more than once and the games you select are your road games (meaning a team can’t be selected more than 5 times) and a five round draft would settle everything.

What it would be like: Imagine this: Orlando is on the clock with their first round pick. Would they want to travel all the way to Vancouver? They have been bad for years, but that is a lot of mileage on the legs. Do they take the nearby Nashville and hope they aren’t good? Do they split the difference and hope SKC has another down year? Odds are those teams will have been selected five times and are unavailable by the time Orlando picks again, so what do they do? Maybe they take another team and hope those three choose Orlando so they can host them for even easier points.

Will Western Conference teams want to take advantage of NYCFC getting a new coach and sporting director, or is the idea of playing in Yankee Stadium just too much of a deterrent?

Is the altitude of Denver and the late season run they went on enough to convince teams to go to Dallas or Portland instead? Would Atlanta rather go to Seattle or LAFC with their 5th round pick?

You can’t tell me this wouldn’t be entertaining.

Would it happen? Nope. Never. But a man can dream..

When it really comes down to it, we have no idea what MLS is going to do to decide which teams will not play who, so if you have another method feel free to throw it in the comments section!