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Yet Another Take on MLS Expansion & Realignment

Jason looks at the future of MLS with a unique look at realignment.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Don Garber & Major League Soccer plans to have the league at 24 teams by 2020. NYC FC (#20) and Orlando City (#21) are set to join in 2015, leaving three spots open in the furture, with two of those rumored to be in Miami (courtesy of David Beckham) and Atlanta (but not the Silverbacks). In the last few weeks, fellow Red Bull writers Zac Wassink and Bill Reese have looked at how MLS might be realigned. I'm going to do the same thing, but with my idea for not just MLS, but the future of US Soccer.

Here's how I would divide a 24 team MLS (final placement depends on the 24th team):

MLS East MLS West
Atlanta Chivas USA
Chicago Fire Colorado Rapids
Columbus Crew FC Dallas
D.C. United Houston Dynamo
Miami LA Galaxy
Montreal Impact Portland Timbers
New England Revolution Real Salt Lake
New York Red Bulls San Jose Earthquakes
New York City FC Seattle Sounders
Orlando City Soccer Club
Sporting Kansas City
Philadelphia Union Vancouver Whitecaps
Toronto FC Team TBD

An important note in this, is that my idea focuses on two leagues, not conferences. Yes, that's right, I'm splitting up MLS. There are a few reasons for this. First, travel has always been an issue due to the size of the United States. Two separate leagues reduces the total amount of travel. Second, splitting up the teams, in my plan, provides a very simple playoff format (more on that later). Third, the split league allows for (in my opinion) an easier path to expanding the league overall, as you can contain any schedule changes to one league. Fourth, it makes the US Open Cup immediately more important. Lastly, it makes it easier to hand out CONCACAF Champions League spots.

So, first thing, how does the schedule work? The two leagues would never play each other during the MLS Regular Season. Yes, MLS will lose the matches like New York-LA, but they only play once a year in MLS as it is, so the loss is minimal. The US Open Cup will not be touched in this idea, so those matchups are still possible under that tournament. Here's how the scheduling would work, inside of each league of course:

  • Each team will play all other teams home-and-away (22 games)
  • A third game against each team, with home team alternating each year (11 games)

That brings the total games to 33, one less than the current season. One less game gives (a little) more leeway for FIFA breaks, and maybe removes a midweek game for each team, and like I mentioned before, travel is reduced as you don't have teams flying across the country every week. If the number of teams goes past 12 per league, the schedule would be reduced to just home-and-away, aka a balanced schedule.

Next, how do the standings work? Very simple, each league is a single table, and since everyone gets an equal shot at the others, the winner of the league is more of a "true" winner. This also leads into the MLS playoffs. In the past, I advocated a group stage instead of the current format. That idea is scrapped under this format. Instead, and this will be a shock to some people, there will be no real "playoffs". Instead the MLS "Champion" is crowned by a one off game between the East & West Champions, just like the Super Bowl before the AFL/NFL merger. So, for example, this year's MLS Cup would've been between the New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers, instead of both teams losing in the playoffs.

Lastly, how would this affect Champions League spots. Here's how I would distribute the spots:

  • MLS East Champion
  • MLS West Champion
  • US Open Cup Winner
  • US Open Cup Runner Up

If the US Open Cup Winner or Runner-Up qualify via the MLS East/West, then the next highest ranking MLS team (regardless of league) takes the spot. Also, as it currently stands, a Canadian team can not qualify via these methods.

Now, to probably the most important part about this piece, how does this help US Soccer in the future? At some point down the road (very down the road), Promotion/Relegation will probably be enacted for US Soccer. I'm not getting into the merits of it here, but it's important to the idea. Under this plan, NASL, and USL Pro would also need to follow suit with the East/West idea, although I understand the idea of making it conferences instead of separate league. If/When Pro/rel happens, the way to win promotion is to be the top 2 of the East/West, and to be relegated, be the last 2 teams.

Example (using the 2nd half of the 2013 NASL season only, and very rough decision of East/West):

  • Relegated from MLS to NASL:
    • East: DC United, Toronto FC
    • West: Chivas USA, FC Dallas
  • Promoted from NASL to MLS:
    • East: NY Cosmos, Carolina Railhawks
    • West: Minnesota United, FC Edmonton

Managing Pro/Rel by geography allows for pro/rel without drastically affecting scheduling and travel, which could happen if it's done under the current format.

This would obviously be a radical change to how MLS & most of the soccer world does things. However, given the nature of how big the US is, and what is Don Garber's very ambitious expansion plans, I think this might be the best option going forward. Let me know what you think in the comments.