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MLS considers moving to 34 games

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During the MLS board of governors' meeting in Houston this week, adding four games to each team's schedule (an increase from 30 to 34) was among the topics discussed, according to an MLS source familiar with those meetings.

It would happen next year, and makes sense in two ways: additional games are now a means to additional revenue -- which wasn't always the case in MLS. And since 18 teams will fill up next year's league there is momentum for creating a perfectly aligned 34-game set-up, where each club plays home and away once against all others.

There's still a process before this even goes before a vote of the board of governors, and owners could simply play it safe and retain the current 30-game schedule. Major League Soccer's technical committee and the influential competition committee will have a hand in making a full recommendation to the owners this fall. The owners would then vote on the proposed changes during meetings at MLS Cup week in late November.

But there's reason to think this might happen, starting with the shifting economics of MLS.

Games in too many markets once were, essentially, long-term investments but short-term loss leaders. Burdened with bad leases in NFL stadiums and less well braced by sponsorship and TV revenue, match days were money pits in some places. So cost cutting was in mind when MLS schedule makers reduced each club's load from 32 to 28 games back in 2002. (It went back up to 30 in 2003, where it remains today.)

The situation now is radically different; most clubs can cover operating costs and even make a buck with their home matches. It's mostly about owning rather than renting in facilities.

There was but one dedicated, proper soccer stadium in use in the 2002 MLS season; today nine venues are in use that were constructed specifically for MLS sides. By next year, 14 of 18 teams will operate in facilities built or renovated expressly for MLS clubs. With so many primary tenants now overseeing venues (and those delicious ancillary revenue streams) matches can actually be financially advantageous.

So, the prospect of 34 matches is attractive from that standpoint.

But there is another side to consider here. MLS has been reluctant to expand the regular season window of competition, which is now at 32 weeks for the 30 matches, stretching from late March to late October. MLS officials -- who declined to speak on the record about the proposal because the contents of board of directors meetings are typically protected before official announcements -- say there is little appetite for expanding the existing window of competition.

That means one thing: more midweek contests.

The shifting market demographics (the target audience is now more urban and Hispanic and somewhat less family oriented in many markets) mean midweek contests aren't the attendance drain they may have been before. Still, all things considered, weekend dates remain preferable.

So a schedule of 34 matches, plus contests in U.S. Open Cup, SuperLiga, CONCACAF Champions League and these economically alluring friendlies, make additional midweek matches unavoidable.

There's also wear and tear on players to be considered, a topic that continues to be explored. MLS commissioner Don Garber said Wednesday that further roster expansion was also mentioned during the board of governors meetings. So was the way to structure a return of the reserve league, something else that ties into roster expansion and scheduling matters.

There's one other issue to be considered: while the symmetry and competitive equilibrium of a 34-game schedule looks great for 2011, it would last but a season. That's because Montreal is set to join MLS as the 19th club in 2012. So what would MLS do at that point?

That's what they'll be figuring out between now and a possible board of governors' vote in November.

The weekend ahead

New York vs. Houston (Saturday at Houston's Robertson Stadium): By late Saturday night, new MLS star Thierry Henry may be wondering what in the world he got himself into. Henry is likely to make his league debut against the Dynamo on the University of Houston campus, where the field is just about wide enough for a good under-14 match, and where the humidity will be as thick as some of the French cheese of Henry's upbringing.

Red Bulls coach Hans Backe hasn't said whether Henry will start. The French international played 45 minutes in both of New York's friendlies last week but still hasn't reached full fitness. Either way, that small field, Houston's growing desperation and the Dynamo's typically physical ways means Henry will surely get a fine welcome to MLS. And as we always hear, it's a "physical league." So good luck with all that, sir.

New England vs. Philadelphia (Saturday at Philadelphia's PPL Park): Two teams stuck near the bottom of the Eastern standings, New England and Philadelphia, will see Saturday's match in Chester, Penn., as three points there for the taking. Both sides have 14 points. Although Philadelphia has played one fewer match, neither is mathematically on pace for a playoff spot. Now that All-Star break is over and more teams are approaching the finish line on exhibitions and concurrent (if far lesser valued) competitions, expect to see tighter focus on those increasingly valuable eight postseason berths.

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