Checking In With the Unbalanced Schedule

Nine teams since 2012 have managed a .500 away record. Is that the exception or the rule?

Tinkering is not necessarily a prized quality in the world of soccer. Indeed, a sport that takes such pride in its tradition and whose fans find comfort in its purity often take less than kindly towards changes that buck established methods and rules. This is the prevailing attitude in world soccer.

Major League Soccer, on the other hand, embraces this concept fully. Major League Soccer is still figuring out the best way to do business, and as such, they are willing to try different things in hopes of making a more successful product.  

We were sold an idea in 2012: an unbalanced schedule would cut down on fatigue (ultimately leading towards better road results) and expenditures per team. On some level it made sense. As Don Garber pointed out: 

Fact: The USA is a lot bigger than the UK.  Map courtesy of www.undertheraedar.com

Fact: The USA is a lot bigger than the UK. 
Map courtesy of www.undertheraedar.com

Most important from a competitive perspective is the travel impact in this country. We did some statistics on this, and I think you guys would be shocked to know that the Whitecaps traveled almost 60,000 miles this year, and the clubs on the lower end traveled around 30,000 miles.
To put that in perspective, a typical European club is traveling about 5,000 round-trip miles for their games. Manchester United had 3,500 miles. So the more games we add, the more travel and impact it has on our players, and therefore reduces the quality of our play."

Four years into this new foray and experiment in American soccer, it’s high time to see if and how the MLS landscape has been affected:

As for the new, experimental, unbalanced schedule, it’s really played a small part since it became policy in 2012. The difference is between the average of 2.375 teams per season with a winning away record from 1996-2011, and a 2.25 teams per season with a winning away record from 2012-present.

It’s a minute difference for skewing the schedule in such an awkward manner. The standings at the end of the season are reasonably objective as a result, but not as simple and as objective as things could be under a home-away, round table set of matches would have (which preceded 2012 in the first place).

Here's a full chart to illustrate:

You can draw some interesting conclusions from the above data. For one, having the best away record in the league is no guarantee that a side will win MLS Cup, let alone appear in it. Secondly, a better away record has been a better predictor of Supporters Shield winners than actual MLS Cup winners. The difference lies in the MLS Cup playoffs, which can allow teams like the 2010 Colorado Rapids or the 2015 Portland Timbers to ascend from the lowliest of playoff seeds and into the final.

As things currently stand, the point may be well and truly moot as the league has seemingly no intention of halting its expansion. Don Garber's latest projections seem to indicate that he's looking at 28 teams. That means that in order for everyone to do a home and away it would require teams play 54 matches. That's obviously completely unrealistic. Unless there is a significant change to the way that the league is aligned, the unbalanced schedule doesn't look like it's going to go anywhere. Perhaps one day, a balanced schedule could be feasible if the league expands enough that it could be split into two separate divisions that don't play each other until the post-season. Perhaps it could happen if the league is split into two divisions and promotion and relegation are introduced. Either circumstance is merely baseless speculation and a long way off at best, so we're stuck with the way things are for the foreseeable future. 

So this leaves only one question. Has Major League Soccer’s natural tendency to tinker worked out in this instance? Only financially, at least for now. There are less buses, trains, segways, hover boards, and flights to charter as a result of it, which means more money saved per squad over the course of a season. MLS teams still haven’t grappled with the rigors of the road regardless of how far they’re flying or driving. On the upside, they save some money. But hanging over the league’s head time and time again will be the moral cost: a less-objective manner of determining the best competitors within the league itself.