Don Garber: MLS Will Retain Conference Structure Next Year
There had been some speculation that the addition of two teams West Coast teams, and the league's growing sympathy for those who pine for a "traditional" structure, might force a rethink. It hasn't.
"We will retain a conference system and we will move 2 teams from the West to East, and we'll announce those changes towards the end of the year," Garber wrote in an online chat with USA Today ahead of Wednesday's All-Star Game in Houston.
Moving two teams to the East, however, would necessitate moving one Eastern team back West. Otherwise, the Eastern Conference would have 10 clubs and the Western eight. Garber said no more, leaving us to speculate how MLS will create two conferences of nine teams each. We assume and hope that's the aim.
A quick look at the map reveals that the two lucky clubs heading East should be Houston and Dallas. They can move together and maintain their intrastate rivalry, or at least as much of a rivalry as there can be between a perennial contender and a club that's failed to forge any identity or consistent following during its 15 years. If that happens, the Kansas City Wizards can return to the Western Conference, where they played for the first nine years of their existence.
The conference setup also will make more sense next season, when a balanced schedule becomes impossible. MLS probably isn't going to add four regular season games (home-and-away against each of the two new clubs) to each team's program in 2011. Each club's fixture list will stay at 30, and MLS seems likely to follow other North American leagues and reduce the number of matches played outside the time zone and the conference. If anything, the use of Eastern and Western standings will be solidified next year.
The league's real problem continues to be the ridiculous playoff format, which offers an almost insulting advantage to the higher seed (conference championship game at home, if you qualify) and is far too abbreviated to produce a valid or deserving champion. Garber was questioned on that as well, by an astute reader who asked if the league would consider placing the eight qualifiers in two groups of four teams to open the postseason.
Garber's response: "Not at this point but we continue to evaluate our playoff format, and certainly, a group stage format would be an exciting option."
That format indeed has been discussed inside MLS headquarters, and it's looking like a better move all the time. It gives each qualifier a minimum of three games, allows for advanced scheduling, makes every game important to every team and its fans and could offer significant reward to the higher seed (multiple home games, choice of home games, etc.). The top two teams in each group could cross over and play a semifinal at the higher seed, and the winners would advance to the MLS Cup final.
The notion of a conference championship game, with the title and trophy along with it, was an idea championed by the late Lamar Hunt. It would be no insult to him to scrap it.
The group-stage format would add only one game to the finalists' to-do list, but somehow that fifth match makes winning the title seem a lot more legitimate. MLS should adopt this immediately, and forever get rid of the home-and-home series that represents the totally clueless adaptation of a cup system designed to avoid rewarding teams based on regular season or league performance.
The commissioner also said that the league's 20th team would join in 2013, "at the earliest." Montreal will be No. 19 in 2012, meaning that there would be 10 teams in the Eastern Conference and nine in the Western. MLS won't focus on the West just to even things up, not with New York City and the entire Southeast U.S. glaring white spots on the league map.
He listed Atlanta, Miami, San Antonio, Detroit and San Diego as cities that could be in contention "beyond 20." Does that mean that Gotham is in line for team No. 20? New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon was rumored to be interested in building a stadium near Citi Field in Queens before the recession hit. Perhaps that interest has been renewed.
Garber did say that neither a "committed investor" nor a "plan for a soccer-specific stadium" exist in Miami, meaning MLS's return to South Florida could be a long way off.
In addition, we still think Chivas USA would have a larger profile if it played outside the Galaxy's shadow in Los Angeles. If Chivas is committed to L.A., let them remove the Guadalajara coat of arms from its logo. Perhaps San Diego would make sense. It had the second-highest English-language TV rating for the World Cup final of any market in the U.S. There's plenty of interest there.