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MLS schedule switch could create as many problems as it solves

LA Galaxy, MLS Cup 2012 The Los Angeles Galaxy captured last season's MLS Cup on December 1, 2012 -- the latest an MLS Cup final has ever been held. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Few subjects register on American soccer’s Richter scale quite like some old-fashioned speculation about the MLS competition format. And it is old-fashioned.

Since the league kicked off in 1996, boilerplate arguments concerning promotion and relegation, a switch to the “European” fall-to-spring calendar and the merits the MLS Cup playoffs have come up time and again. Not much changes, but the subjects continue to captivate.

That may be because of a popular, deep-seated belief that something other than time, investment, hard work and patience is required to lift MLS to the next level. It assumes that the significant cultural evolution already underway -- compare soccer’s place on the American sporting landscape now to 25 years ago -- might be hastened by a cosmetic adjustment to the MLS standings or schedule. As if crowning a champion in June or eliminating conferences might magically erase one of the decades by which we measure the advantage enjoyed by pro football, baseball and basketball.

On Monday morning, New York’s Daily News rekindled the wildfire when it reported that MLS was “inching closer” to shifting to a fall-to-spring season. It claimed the switch could happen in 2014 -- a World Cup year -- and that conversations about an overhaul “have intensified in recent weeks.”

Cue the Twitter meltdown.

MLS executive VP Dan Courtemanche took to his own account and called for calm, reminding fans that the league “has reviewed many possible schedule formats throughout the years." He wrote that MLS recently conducted a fan survey – one of several it administers each season – on the schedule, but that no significant alterations were planned for 2014. If that’s “inching closer”, then the Daily News was correct. But for now, a comprehensive realignment isn’t in the cards.

The league does keep its options open, as it should. For example, In late 2010 MLS investigated moving to the European calendar. There were three arguments for a switch:

  1. Its teams could take full advantage of the summer transfer window, when foreign clubs do the vast majority of their business.
  2. The MLS Cup playoffs wouldn’t be overshadowed by the NFL, college football and the climax of the MLB season.
  3. It might impress FIFA voters preparing to select the site of the 2022 World Cup.

At that time, a league source suggested that MLS was looking at kicking off its regular season in mid-August, breaking from mid-December through mid-February, and then staging the title game in early June. In non-World Cup years, the ensuing two months could be used for exhibitions and tours. Here's how that would look compared to MLS' 2010 timetable:

Comparing how MLS' proposed revisions from 2010 compare to its current schedule. Comparing how MLS' proposed revisions from 2010 compared to its 2010 season schedule.

A transition season lasting a year-and-a-half, similar to the one Russia staged in 2011-12, likely would be required (a similar plan would make a 2014 switch impossible).

Then FIFA chose Qatar as the site of the 2022 World Cup, invalidating reason number three listed above. MLS’ plans to study the feasibility of a shift more closely were shelved. And that’s no surprise -- a fall to spring schedule would present its own array of challenges.

A good chunk of the U.S. and Canada experiences weather that would render regular season games in early December and late February rather miserable. MLS clubs would be giving up dates in the summer, when most compete only with baseball and when families might be more likely to buy tickets. A two-month winter break would cut short the season’s momentum and any budding storylines. The MLS Cup playoffs might be overshadowed by the NFL and MLB in the fall, but they’ll likely be overshadowed by the NHL and NBA in the spring.

The North American sports calendar is always congested, and soccer hasn’t reached the point where it can command consistent headlines, no matter the time of year. MLS is in its 18th season. The NBA, the youngest of the four largest U.S./Canadian circuits, is in its 68th.

MLS continues to discuss changes large and small and to solicit feedback from fans and stakeholders. It is in no rush, however, to feed the format frenzy. A fall-to-spring schedule, promotion/relegation and an end to the playoffs will remain distracting debate, and not much more, for the foreseeable future.
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