An Unbalanced Schedule Makes an Exciting Experiment

Whitecaps fans might get to see the exciting Fredy Montero and the Seattle Sounders twice next season. Why is that supposed to be terrible?

Hi, Vancouver Whitecaps fans. Aren't you just so sick of playing the Portland Timbers? Traveling to Portland, having their fans travel here, it's such a drag. The once-great rivalry has been diluted by over-exposure to the point of being meaningless.

What's that you're answering? "No, and furthermore, are you completely mental?" Indeed, the Portland Timbers - Vancouver Whitecaps matches in 2011 were highlights on both teams' schedule. However, the announcement of an unbalanced Major League Soccer schedule in 2012 has fans concerned for that exact reason: that fans of great rivals like Portland and Vancouver will become turned off if the two teams play each other three times a season rather than twice.

So the reason I asked the question in the first paragraph is because, in the 2010 USSF D2 season, Vancouver and Portland played each other four times in the regular season plus twice more in the playoffs. There was no appreciable "dilution" of the rivalry; if anything, the frenzy was higher at the end of the season than the beginning. Indeed, the 2010 USSF Professional Second Division used an unbalanced schedule with the result being an exciting, thoroughly enjoyable season of soccer.

Die-hard sports fans are generally a conservative bunch; you can still see Major League Baseball fans railing at the adoption of inter-league play. National Hockey League fans bemoan a schedule where Eastern Conference stars play Western Conference teams once every three seasons. In MLB inter-league games are among the best-attended dates on the calendar and in the NHL conference rivalries have never been hotter because of increased play and the increased significance of every game. That doesn't make the more conservative fans give up their gripes, but it does make a mockery of their points.

On the other hand National Football League fans can point to some genuinely catastrophic scheduling "innovations" in their sports, whereas not so long ago the NHL schedule watered down divisional games so badly that divisions were merely meaningless ways of assigning playoff seeding. Not even change to a schedule is bound to be a good one and some informed skepticism of the unbalanced Major League Soccer schedule is called for.

We're not seeing informed skepticism. We're seeing aimless angst and baseless fear.

Much of the anger over the new schedule is because an unbalanced schedule is not "traditional". The big European leagues have balanced schedules and since MLS is nothing but a substitute for those who don't have the fortune to live near a big European team, it must emulate big European leagues as much as possible. Needless to say, this is bullshit and anybody who even utters the word "Europe" as a reason for a balanced schedule deserves nothing but mockery. But there have been some legitimate criticisms raised as well.

With five Eastern Conference teams not visiting Vancouver in 2012, that means that Vancouver fans won't get to see the stars of those five teams until 2013. This is too bad, particularly if it denies casual Whitecaps supporters the chance to see Thierry Henry or Freddy Adu or a similarly big Eastern name.

But Vancouver fans will also get two shots at some Western stars: perhaps Landon Donovan will visit twice. As we've seen in the past season it's awfully easy for players like Henry or David Beckham to skip their lone visits to BC Place anyway. I'm not sure why this is supposed to be an issue; this is still Major League Soccer. What sort of real Vancouver Whitecaps fans goes to BC Place because he's dreaming of getting an in-person glimpse of the great Faryd Mondragon? What sort of Whitecaps fans prefers seeing Torsten Frings to seeing the Seattle Sounders?

Number of Vancouver games
against Portland/Seattle,
regular season, 2004-2011
Season Games per Rival
2004 4
2005 4
2006 2
2007 3
2008 3
2009 3
2010 4
2011 2

Don't be fooled, either; seeing the Seattle Sounders will still be a big event. I hear fans concerned that the rivalry will be diluted, but the rivalry with the Portland Timbers wasn't watered down in the least by the total of six regular season and playoff games played by the two teams in 2010. In 2004 and 2005 the Whitecaps played a total of eight Cascadia Cup matches; four each against Seattle and Portland. In 2008 the Whitecaps played those teams four times each. Since the Cascadia Cup was created in 2004, the once-each-home-and-away schedule we saw between Portland and Seattle in 2011 was only replicated in 2006. Every other season saw multiple games.

We can see how badly diluted the Cascadia Cup has become as a result of playing more than two games against each opponent six years out of eight. It's only the hottest rivalry in Major League Soccer, ho-hum.

In 2011, four out of thirty-four Whitecaps regular-season games were against Seattle or Portland: 11.8%. In 2012 it'll be six out of thirty-four: 17.6%. That's the end of the world? In 2010 Vancouver played 13.3% of their regular season games against Portland alone, and every one of them was an occasion. This schedule will not hurt our rivalries; we know this because of all the other times an even more lopsided schedule did not hurt our rivalries.

Meanwhile, Vancouver fans will enjoy more opportunities than ever to travel with their team. Rather than long trips to New England, Washington, Columbus, and Kansas City, we can save our money and our air miles to see closer opponents in games that will (thanks to the conference-based playoff system) mean more.

I can't possibly imagine how any fan would look at a chance to see more away games and say "this sucks". Vancouver is unique among western teams in having two rivals in the East: Montreal Impact and Toronto FC. But in addition to our regular season game odds are we'll see at least one of them every year in the Voyageurs Cup. Neither of those rivals are as important to Whitecaps fans as Seattle or Portland, and I think Toronto fans would agree they see Montreal and Columbus as more important rivals than Vancouver.

The best argument is that new schedule will see a less fair regular season table. Vancouver will play some western teams twice at home and some twice away. If Vancouver's battling Portland for the last playoff spot in 2012 but the Whitecaps have to play in Portland twice while Portland only has to play in Vancouver once, it seems the Timbers must have the advantage.

This is probably true but, I think, overrated. If Vancouver plays in Portland twice they'll also host some other playoff rival twice; it should even out. No schedule will ever be "fair", as DC United fans could tell you when they played must-win games against playoff challengers while Dejan Jakovic and Chris Pontius were injured.

I agree with this criticism in-so-far as that I think it will make a difference. I'm not convinced that it'll make a significant difference and I'm not convinced that such a difference will outweigh the good the rest of the schedule does. So, if it turns out that unbalanced home-and-away roster screws up the playoffs, MLS must move away from it.

This is an experiment. But it's an experiment worth trying and an experiment I'm hopeful for. MLS has already improved on the European soccer model in many areas: their games are more competitive and exciting thanks to their salary cap; their teams are sustainable and survivable thanks to their financial rules. They've also gotten a few things wrong. So no, I'm not going to shout "that's not how they do it in Europe!", because if there's one thing the past decade of increasingly uncompetitive leagues and bankrupt teams have proven it's that the Europeans don't know what they're doing. At least MLS is innovating, and I'm excited.

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