Proposal for an MLS ‘Split Season’

As camps begin to open for the 2011 MLS season, it is important to look at some of the changes that our league is looking to make. With the opening of two more passionate fan bases, and the significant investment being made in player development (youth academy, reserve league, etc.), it is clear that MLS is looking to make big strides in the next 5 years.

At MLS Cup 2010, Commisioner Garber announced the new playoff format, and also spoke about aligning with the FIFA international calendar (http://espn.go.com/sports/soccer/news/_/id/5837050/mls-exploring-international-schedule-alignment-playoff-expansion). I think we can all agree that it is too soon to start competing with the major sports for Fall/Winter air time, but the Commisioner is right in his idea of shaking up the schedule. Because of the playoff system, the regular season in MLS is not as intense as the leagues in Europe. We have seen below .500 teams back into the playoffs and make significant runs, while battles for trophies and promotion/relegation consume Europe on a weekly basis.

Below is my proposal for a “split-season” in MLS. I think it would create a sense of urgency throughout the league on a weekly basis, and make it easier for some of our other competitions (Gold Cup, Concacaf Champions League, US Open Cup) to thrive. Enjoy!

Overview

The current template for the MLS Regular Season would be retained with competition running from April through November. However, instead of one prolonged season with playoffs to follow, the same calendar would be divided into two separate “seasons” with playoffs to follow based on the aggregate performance of the respective teams over those two distinct “seasons.”

The main objective for the split season is to make every game important. Under this proposal, the winner of the ‘opening’ season is not only guaranteed a playoff spot, but a bye into the Semi-final round of the MLS Cup playoffs. The winner of the ‘closing’ season is given the same guarantee, meaning that an underperforming ‘opening’ season team will have a chance to regroup, make necessary changes, and still have a legitimate shot at an MLS Championship.

2009 Split Season

In this proposal, it is important to look at past results to prove that a split season would provide a positive shake up for the league. It is impossible to determine how results, tactics, and statistics would change in these seasons, but it is important to examine how scenarios would look, and the potential effect it would have on bringing fans to the stadium.  Below are the Conference standings from the ‘opening’ 2009 season.

  East            
               
  Win Loss Tie GF GA GD Points
Chicago 6 3 6 22 20 2 24
DC 5 2 8 25 21 4 23
Toronto 6 5 4 21 22 -1 22
Columbus 5 3 7 21 20 1 22
NewEngland 5 5 5 16 21 -5 20
Kansas City 5 6 4 19 18 1 19
New York 2 10 3 15 25 -10 9

 

  West            
               
  Win Loss Tie GF GA GD Points
Houston 8 3 4 20 10 10 28
Chivas 8 4 3 19 11 8 27
Seattle 5 3 7 23 15 8 22
Colorado 5 4 6 22 20 2 21
Salt Lake 5 6 4 21 17 -4 19
LosAngeles 3 3 9 17 18 -1 18
Dallas 3 7 5 18 24 -6 14
San Jose 3 8 4 17 28 -11 13

 

Under this format, Houston would be the Champion of the opening season, and receive a bye into the MLS playoffs. All other teams will be aggregated into their season totals as they push for the playoffs. As teams prepare for the ‘closing’ season, there is plenty of buzz that will be created around the league. Teams will need to carefully examine tactics and player personnel, as every team is still very much alive. Below is what the single table would look like for the ‘opening’ season.

  Win Loss Tie GF GA GD Points
Houston 8 3 4 20 10 10 28
Chivas USA 8 4 3 19 11 8 27
Chicago 6 3 6 22 20 2 24
DC 5 2 8 25 21 4 23
Toronto 6 5 4 21 22 -1 22
Seattle 5 3 7 23 15 8 22
Columbus 5 3 7 21 20 1 22
Colorado 5 4 6 22 20 2 21
New England 5 5 5 16 21 -5 20
Kansas City 5 6 4 19 18 1 19
Salt Lake 5 6 4 21 17 4 19
Los Angeles 3 3 9 17 18 -1 18
Dallas 3 7 5 18 24 -6 14
San Jose 3 8 4 17 28 -11 13
New York 2 10 3 15 25 -10 9

 

As we move into the ‘closing season’, there are 7 playoff spots up for grabs, plus a reserved spot for the Champion. The Conference breakdown of the closing season of 2009 would look like this.

  East            
               
  Win Loss Tie GF GA GD Points
Columbus 8 4 3 20 11 9 27
NewEngland 6 5 4 16 16 0 22
Chicago 5 4 6 16 14 2 21
DC 4 6 5 18 23 -5 17
Toronto 4 6 5 16 24 -8 17
Kansas City 3 7 5 12 24 -12 14
New York 3 9 3 14 23 -9 12

 

 

 

 

 

West            
               
  Win Loss Tie GF GA GD Points
LosAngeles 9 3 3 19 13 6 30
Dallas 8 6 1 32 23 9 25
Seattle 7 4 4 15 14 1 25
Salt Lake 6 6 3 21 18 3 21
Houston 5 5 5 19 19 0 20
Colorado 5 6 4 20 18 2 19
Chivas 5 7 3 15 19 -4 18
San Jose 4 6 5 19 22 -3 17

 

Under this format, Los Angeles would be the winner of the ‘closing season’, and receive a bye into the playoffs.

Single Table            
               
  Win Loss Tie GF GA GD Points
Los Angeles 9 3 3 19 13 6 30
Columbus 8 4 3 20 11 9 27
Dallas 8 6 1 32 23 9 25
Seattle 7 4 4 15 14 1 25
New England 6 5 4 16 16 0 22
Salt Lake 6 6 3 21 18 3 21
Chicago 5 4 6 16 14 2 21
Houston 5 5 5 19 19 0 20
Colorado 5 6 4 20 18 2 19
Chivas 5 7 3 15 19 -4 18
San Jose 4 6 5 19 22 -3 17
DC 4 6 5 18 23 -5 17
Toronto 4 6 5 16 24 -8 17
Kansas City 3 7 5 12 24 -12 14
New York 3 9 3 14 23 -9 12

 

Los Angeles as the winner of the ‘closing’ season is an example of how exciting a split season would be. At the end of the ‘opening’ season, Los Angeles was in 12th place, and fans had a case for becoming disinterested. However, the team found a way to turn things around, and have the best record in the second half of the season. Under the split season format, Los Angeles would have been rewarded with a bye into the MLS Cup semi-finals, and the team would earn a trophy. Also, under the current format, Los Angeles finished in 2nd place, so the results were not drastically altered. This is important to note, because the ultimate goal of the split season is to create more excitement, while still rewarding the best teams in the league and encouraging the struggling teams.

Seasons 2008-2005

The turnaround that Los Angeles made in 2009 is rare, and there is no team between the 2008-2005 seasons that mirrors their results. However, a split season would lead to more scenarios like the 2009 LA Galaxy, and more importantly present the hope that any team’s season can turn around. It is just as important to note that the winner of the ‘opening’ season may drop of significantly in the ‘closing’ season. This happened with New England in 2008 (11th place, closing season) and Dallas in 2005 (10th place, closing season). Although this could be seen as a concern, it could also open teams to finding different strategies in its pursuit of multiple trophies in a season. The ‘opening’ season champion does have some room to breathe, but that should allow for more creativity in the ‘closing’ season. An organization is now able to decide what strategy is best for it’s players and it’s fans.

The other major impact that a split season will have is on the playoffs. There are no cases between 2005 and 2008 where the season champions also finish as the top seeds. At the same time, a season champion did not finish lower than 5th (Dallas, 2007). Again, it is difficult to predict how results would be different with the split season in place, but again this shows how every team has something to play for. In this case, there would be more urgency to win a season, and get a MLS playoff bye. If a team is not able to win a season, then the objective remains to get as many positive results as possible to get a higher playoff seed.

Attendance

Although it is difficult to predict how a split season would affect on-field performance, we can use attendance numbers to indicate how it can affect the impact on getting fans to the stadium. Awarding 1-2 playoff spots within the first 15 games of the season should create more intensity for early season games, and that intensity will bring more fans to the games. In order to see how increased urgency would affect fans, I looked at the last 5 home games of each team in MLS, and compared it to the team’s average attendance for the season. The theory is that the last 5 games should be more intense as teams push towards the playoffs, and fans will want to get out and support their team. Below are the attendance numbers for 2009 based on how teams finished under the current format.

  Points Last 5 Season
Columbus 49 17,111 14,447
Los Angeles 48 21,354 19,465
Houston 48 18,486 15,763
Seattle 47 32,764 30,943
Chicago 45 15,901 13,739
Chivas 45 15,077 15,256
NewEngland 42 12,216 12,226
Salt Lake 40 16,641 15,517

 

Colorado

40 12,415 12,075
DC 40 14,756 14,516
Dallas 39 15,776 11,525
Toronto 39 20,272 20,264
KC 33 6,795 7,467
San Jose 30 18,665 11,994
New York 21 12,423 12,310

 

Chivas and New England were teams that were in the hunt for the playoffs, but the average attendance of their last 5 home games was below the season average. Meanwhile, the top 5 teams all had higher attendance in their last 5 home games than the season average. This may have to do with the fact that only 9 points separated the top playoff team from the bottom. Because the playoff race was close from top to bottom, virtually all of the teams were above the season average in attendance in their last 5 games. Also, it is worth noting that Chivas and New England were below the season average by a combined 189 fans. This tells us that a close playoff race creates urgency for a fan base, and is capable of bringing more fans to the stadium.

The attendance at the end of the season shows that a playoff push creates more fans. Looking at the split season, the goal is to create playoff intensity throughout the entire season. To do this, it is important to look at the attendance through the first 5 games of the season, when teams are starting out and there is not as much at stake.

  Points 1st First 5 Season
Houston 28 14,766 15,763
Chivas 27 13,601 15,256
Chicago 24 10,293 13,739
DC 23 13,149 14,516
Toronto 22 20,252 20,264
Seattle 22 29,612 30,943
Columbus 22 12,369 14,447
Colorado 21 11,437 12,075
NewEngland 20 9,805 12,226
KC 19 8,033 7,467
Salt Lake 19 13,176 15,517
Los Angeles 18 18,605 19,465
Dallas 14 9,404 11,525
San Jose 13 8,615 11,994
New York 9 10,455 12,310

 

The table shows us that the first 5 games of the season do not provide the same urgency as the last 5 games. Knowing that teams increase attendance when the playoffs are at stake, it would make sense to split the season and award 1-2 playoff spots within the first 15 games of the season. The first 5 home dates of each team would run approximately halfway into the ‘opening’ season, meaning that teams already have something at stake, and fans have a reason to pack the stadiums.

Attendance 2008-2005

The biggest trend in the MLS attendance between 2005-2008 is in the first half of the season. Looking at the chart, virtually every team starts slow in attendance. In 2007, every team was below it’s season average in attendance in its first 5 games. At the same time, the last 5 games of the 2007 season saw the top 9 teams above the season average in its last 5 games of the season. This is another good example of how playoff intensity brings more fans to the stadium.

There are inconsistencies between seasons. For example, teams pushing for the playoffs in 2006 and 2008 were not able to get above the season average. At first glance, these statistics show a lack of urgency. However, a split season has the potential of fixing this problem by creating more hope in getting to the playoffs. The 2006 Salt Lake team is a great example of this. They finished tied for the last playoff spot, and came in 9th as the result of a tiebreaker. Because of a great second half, Salt Lake would have finished 1 point behind the ‘closing’ season winner, which would have vaulted them from 9th place to a top seed in the MLS playoffs. This scenario would have brought more fans to the stadium at the end of the season, and consequently improved the play of the Salt Lake team as they worked for that 1 extra point.

Conclusion

A split season can certainly increase the intensity of the regular season. It makes every team feel like it is in the race until the very end, and also rewards the teams that perform consistently throughout the season. This will ultimately energize a fan base from the first game, and also allow teams to differentiate their tactics and philosophy based on their results. As MLS continues to gain respect throughout the international community, it would certainly be seen as a progressive rule change, and should ultimately create a better product on the field.

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