We’re nearing the end of the MLS season, and when the dust finally settles and a champion is crowned, it’ll be time for the one event that grips the entire soccer world, bringing people from every corner of the globe together into one community!
Of course I am talking about the MLS offseason. And this offseason, there is a chance that there will be the first major change in the league’s structure since we were all arguing about when a new millennium actually begins.
To recap, because this kind of thing can get away from you if you’re not constantly following the news: There are 28 teams in MLS. Next year there will be 29, as St. Louis City joins the league, and MLS can once again claim its crown as the largest soccer league in the world (take that, Argentina!)
Since the beginning of MLS, there has been an Eastern Conference and a Western Conference, except for 2000 and 2001 when they were Divisions and there was also a Central Division.
It didn’t work that well; Tampa Bay was in the Central Division, and while it added a certain “NFC Central” flavor to the league, it also foreshadowed map problems that plague the MLS until this day.
Now, those conferences have grown to include 14 teams apiece, which has the league teetering on the brink of being two entirely separate leagues. There wasn’t much crossover this year; for example, Minnesota played 26 games against the West, and just eight against the East. If MLS hits its stated goal of 32 teams, and keeps the same scheduling mechanism (play each team in your conference twice), then teams would play 30 games in-conference and four against the other conference.
So what’s a rapidly-growing league to do for 2023? Below, four options – the most likely option, the major change option, plus two other options that I don’t think are going to happen.
The Most Likely Option
MLS in 2023 looks an awful lot like MLS in 2022. St. Louis joins the Western Conference; Chicago possibly switches with Nashville to take advantage of a Chicago-St. Louis rivalry, or possibly doesn’t, and if there’s no switch, perhaps the league puts Nashville back in the Eastern Conference, or perhaps doesn’t. Either way, the league keeps a similar structure, with an awful lot of conference games and extremely few crossover games.
The “Major Change” Option
The league decides that it’s better off with a more cohesive schedule, one in which every team plays every other team at least once during the season, and we get something we haven’t seen for two decades: divisions!
Here is my attempt at divisions, keeping in mind that time zones are extremely annoying, but it’s also not really the league’s fault that there are 13 teams in the Eastern Time Zone but only two on Mountain Time.
West: LAFC, LA Galaxy, San Jose, Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, Colorado, Real Salt Lake
Central: Minnesota, Kansas City, St. Louis, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Chicago
Northeastern: Toronto, Montreal, New England, NYCFC, NYRB, Philadelphia, D.C.
Southeastern: Nashville, Columbus, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando
Divisions mean that every team can play every other team again, plus a home-and-home series against the other teams in the division (though the West, with an extra team, would have to be a bit unbalanced).
As for the playoffs, the league can decide whether to have divisional playoffs (à la the NHL – warning, a lot of people in hockey don’t like this) or stick with conference playoffs.
The “Less Is More” Option
The Leagues Cup is coming next year, which begins to make the 34-game schedule look a little difficult to fit into the ol’ calendar. So maybe next year the league decides to not only go with divisions, but to go with smaller divisions, and reduce the schedule.
I think this is pretty unlikely! Match-day revenue is still a huge driver for the entire league, and telling everybody they’re going to give up a home game seems like a nonstarter at the owners’ meetings. But with the season already encroaching on wintertime at both ends, it’s certainly something to think about.
Here’s my six-division setup, and I’m warning you right now, this doesn’t work that well geographically, especially for a certain local squad.
West: LAFC, LA Galaxy, San Jose, Real Salt Lake, Colorado
South: Austin, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, St. Louis
(Painful) Northwest: Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, Minnesota
North: Chicago, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toronto, Montreal
Northeast: New England, NYCFC, NYRB, Philadelphia, D.C.
Southeast: Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando
You see how poorly the corners of the map meet, in this case. Minnesota would get dumped into the Cascadia division, which makes next to no sense, but it’s not like it’s without precedent. In both the NHL and the NBA, when there were six-division setups, Minnesota’s ended up in the Northwest.
The “It’ll Never Happen” Option
29 teams, as mentioned, is a pretty big league. It’s also on the verge of being big enough that there’s no actual need for all this geography.
28 games, one each against every other team in the league. One table, one set of playoffs. Plenty of room for the Leagues Cup and the US Open Cup and whatever other competition MLS can dream up.
I don’t think this is likely – for one thing, the teams on the Pacific coast would be stuck with six or seven god-awful road trips a year, and lopping six games off the schedule seems like a bad idea.
But it might not be that long before the league is at 32 teams, and then this doesn’t start to seem like as bad – especially since the alternative is to have two leagues that barely play one another.