It has been rumoured for some time that big changes are coming to Major League Soccer next year, and at half time of our MLS on TSN broadcast in Vancouver on Sunday, Commissioner Don Garber gave a strong indication that an unbalanced schedule will be introduced for next season to accommodate the arrival of Montreal Impact as the league's 19th club.
"I'm a big believer that rivalries matter," said Garber. "They create a lot of the passion and the success in the league that we have. You would like to have a fair and balanced schedule but with 19 teams next year and with the size of the U.S. and Canada it is going to be very difficult to do that. We are going to work through all of those details and in the next couple of months we will be able to finalize it."
Until now, I have always been in favour of the league maintaining a balanced schedule. In an ideal world, every team would play each other team twice each season, and the final standings would be a true reflection of a team's ability. However, there are too many other factors that lead to a balanced schedule not only being unrealistic but also near impossible to achieve. With an increased number of teams next year and a travel schedule that is already the most demanding in the soccer world, a balanced schedule would provide a logistical nightmare that could also affect the standard of play on the pitch.
An unbalanced schedule certainly addresses the practical issues that face teams within Major League Soccer, but I also believe it provides the best opportunity to help grow the game across North America. I agree with Commissioner Garber's belief that rivalries can lift the sport to a new level. We have seen in the Pacific Northwest that the battle between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland is something that captures the attention of mainstream sports fans as well as hard-core soccer supporters. If those teams faced each other four times a year instead of just twice, that rivalry would be elevated further. On the other side of the continent, twice as many matches between Toronto and Montreal would likely lead to an increase in the league's profile.
The schedule is just one of the issues under consideration as league officials continue planning for 2012. In the last couple of years, MLS has built breaks into the schedule mid-season to avoid conflict with international action, and Garber indicated that the number of breaks is likely to increase next year.
"It started with taking a break during the World Cup in South Africa and we have taken a couple of breaks this year," said Garber. "I would love to be in a situation where we don't play during those international fixture dates. This is still a developing, evolving league and I think in time you will probably see more and more breaks and perhaps more breaks next year than we saw this year."
The league has already taken big steps forward by breaking for the World Cup Qualifying dates this season. It is only three years ago that Toronto FC had to play a league match at BMO Field without seven players who were away representing their countries. Not only is it an unfair advantage against teams that receive multiple call-ups, but it also devalues the product when fans are not able to see the best players on the pitch for their team. Garber and his staff fully understand the problems and continue to make progress in solving the issue as they look to build the schedule around international dates.
Garber was in Vancouver on the weekend to witness the Whitecaps opening match on Bell Pitch Downtown at the newly renovated BC Place. The Commissioner was full of praise for the new facility and says it is already under consideration to hold one of the league's showpiece events.
"There is a great opportunity for that," he told me. "I can't imagine why we wouldn't bring a big event here like an All-Star or Cup or a big international friendly. This is a beautiful building. We'll be here; it's just a matter of when. Empire was a great temporary facility but this is big time. I really applaud everyone here in Vancouver for the great job they have done."
The Whitecaps new home certainly has a big-time feel that takes the club to another level, but against Portland Timbers on Sunday the 'Caps on-pitch display was once again a major disappointment. For the second week in a row they were beaten by a Pacific Northwest rival, and worryingly, despite it being such a big occasion for the club, the performance lacked heart, spark and fighting spirit.
As the club's incoming coach Martin Rennie begins to form his 2012 squad in the coming weeks, he will need to ensure he has a group of players who have the necessary character and desire to fight for the Whitecaps every time they step onto the pitch.