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It Seems To Me. . .

MLS should seek to shorten its endless season.

By Robert Wagman

(Monday, March 3, 2014) -- Are you ready for Major League Soccer? Whether you are ready or not, here it comes.

The 2014 MLS schedule begins Saturday and will not conclude until many people have their Christmas trees up. The regular season ends on the last Sunday in October, while MLS has not made public what its playoff scheme will be this year. If it's the same as last season, the championship game will not be played until after Thanksgiving and possibly in December.

The league says that this long a season is necessary if it is to take two weeks off in June and July for the World Cup. The schedulers try to avoid mid-week matches, even in the summer, because history shows they are consistently much less attended than weekend matches.

There is an exception to that statement. If television wants to schedule a weekly match on Thursday nights, then one game each week will be moved to Thursday no matter its impact on the host team. By starting Saturday, MLS has flirted with disaster. With arctic-like temperatures reaching two-thirds of Americans over the last week or so, opening games might well be competed in below freezing thermometer readings or, if current long-range forecasts hold, possibly in sub-zero temperatures.

But the schedulers were careful with the opening games, which will be hosted by the league's southern-most or West Coast teams. The only exception will be the D.C. United hosting the Columbus Crew which will likely kick off with wind chills below freezing and many empty seats. In fact, some teams like the New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls will not host their openers until late in the month.

Let's go back to the central question of whether the season is too long. Playing from early March until late October to eliminate fewer than half the clubs from the lengthy playoffs seems excessive. MLS counters that clubs have to play league matches and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup matches, as well as, in some cases, CONCACAF Champions League contests. If a team goes deep into the Open Cup, is in the Champions League, then it might be playing 45 matches in the season.

One team that has faced that scheduling problem is the Los Angeles Galaxy, which leads its coach Bruce Arena to believe the season is actually too short.

Many of the big teams in Europe play 60 or more matches in a season. They are said to be able to do this because they have larger rosters than do salary-conscious MLS teams. That may be true, but looking closely, most of these top European teams are using key players in all their matches, except possible early-round domestic Cup meetings.

MLS will take a week off for its All-Star match, which almost no one takes seriously. In addition, each team is given a week off to schedule exhibition matches, usually against European clubs which like traveling to the United States for preseason training.

One answer to shortening the season by at least a month would be to divide the league into two divisions with the division champions meeting in a one-match or home-and-home series to determine the champion. Another suggestion is to go with a single table with the first-place team earning the championship. That possibly would make the Open Cup more meaningful.

But this is heresy in the MLS headquarters, where the belief is the more teams contending for the playoffs better stimulate interest late in the regular season. If 12 or 14 teams are still vying for playoff spots late into October, then fan interest league-wide will remain high.

My own thought is there has to be a way to delay the start of the season until late Match or even the first weekend in April and end with an MLS Cup completed by early November. This more compact schedule would maintain greater interest.

Is this going to happen? Probably not, but it might help and not hurt the league.

Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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