LOS ANGELES -- Hours before Sunday night's 2011 MLS Cup final, Major League Soccer has announced major changes in its format for the 2012 season.
By and large, the changes are positive, and many of them had been advocated for in this space earlier this month.
The unbalanced schedule:
With the Montreal Impact joining the Eastern Conference as MLS's 19th team, the league will once again have an odd number of franchises. Consequently, it will return to an unbalanced schedule, whereby Western Conference teams will play each other three times during the regular season and their Eastern Conference foes once. In the Eastern Conference, teams will play seven opponents three times and two teams twice in addition to their out-of-conference games. (The schedules are reversed or rotated season to season, to ensure equal games against all clubs.) Of the changes, this is the only unappealing one to me. Yes, an unbalanced schedule favors local rivalries and saves on costly and draining travel, but the fairest of all would be for every team to play each other twice a year -- once away and once at home. Because even though schedules are reversed, not all teams are equally strong every year. Some will benefit; some will suffer. While a tidier balanced schedule would increase the number of games from 34 to 36, there is likely sufficient interest to sustain those added games, as evidenced by this year's uptick in attendance after the regular season went from 30 to 34 games.
The death of the wild card and crossover:
As of 2012, there will be no more wild card. Previously, the top two or three teams in each conference qualified automatically and the remaining playoff spots -- four in 2010 and before and six in 2011 -- were given to the teams with the best record across both conferences. In 2012, the five best teams in each conference will qualify automatically with the lower two playing a single knockout game. The wild card and conference crossover was confusing. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, a team from the opposite conference won the playoff bracket of that conference, which is how, rather embarrassingly, a Western Conference team twice (Real Salt Lake in 2009 and the Colorado Rapids in 2010) got to hoist an Eastern Conference championship banner in its stadium, while the opposite occurred once (the New York Red Bulls in 2008). This format will look tidier and more logical.
Two-leg conference finals:
The league had long preferred a winner-takes-all conference final, perhaps to give it more cachet and to make it feel like a true final. That said, it was far too fickle and prone to upsets to be fair. In one game in soccer, as we all know, anything can happen. In 2012, the conference finals, like the conference semifinals, will consist of two home-and-home games, which is more likely to see the more deserving team through to the final.
The finalist with the best record will host the MLS Cup final:
As evidenced by the awareness of this year's MLS Cup final in Los Angeles, it pays to have the local team playing in the championship game. Logistically, it made sense for MLS to stage the final in predetermined venues for as long as it did. But now that traveling away fans are supporting their teams on the road in droves, and that the league has built up sufficient attention among media, it can support a final stage at no more than two weeks' notice. Simply put, it will make for a better atmosphere without sacrificing attention.