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MLS league structure, 2011 and beyond

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With Vancouver and Portland joining Major League Soccer in 2011, Montreal joining in 2012, and a presumed 20th team joining in 2012/13, the league will once again have to shuffle the conference deck. In 2010, we've got perfect equilibrium: two conferences of eight teams each, with every club playing a home-and-home with every other club. But it won't last. Where do we go from here?

For discussion's sake, let's assume the 20th team will be in the East--almost all potential sites for the new club are east of Kansas City.

KEEPING THE TWO-CONFERENCE SYSTEM

If MLS doesn't change its structure, two Western teams will join MLS next season, with two Eastern teams following shortly after. But a problem arises: the transitional year of 2011, where we'll have 8 teams in the West and 6 teams in the East. There are a few options for next year:

  • Make no changes: We could just deal with lopsided conferences for one season, and let it even out as Montreal and Team 20 come into the league later. But this isn't ideal; a conference difference of two teams significantly hurts Western teams in the hunt for playoff spots.
  • Move Colorado to the East for one year: To create even conferences of 9 teams each in 2011, one Western team would go to the East. No one wants to split the two Texan teams, so the easternmost remaining team in the West is Colorado, who would return to the West once Montreal has joined. I'm not sure how happy Rapids fans would be about this, though.
  • Use a three-division structure for one year: Some B&RU commenters suggested switching to a 3-division system of 6 teams each for 2011. The divisions would be West (VAN, SEA, POR, SJ, LA, CHV), Central (RSL, COL, KC, DAL, HOU, CHI), and East (TOR, CLB, NE, NY, PHI, DC). Once the two new teams join, the league would move back to an even two-conference structure.

DISSOLVE THE CONFERENCE SYSTEM

Personally, I love 2010's perfectly even, "home-and-home with every team" structure. Our last option is to get rid of conferences altogether, use this even home-and-home system, and have the top 8 teams qualify for the playoffs, regardless of geography or how many teams are in the league. It's fair to every team--the only downside would be a slight increase in league travel expenses. North American pro sports fans are unfamiliar with a conferenceless league structure, but most soccer leagues around the world are this way. One could argue this discourages regional rivalries, but I think Arsenal and Tottenham keep up their derby just fine. Plus, as D.C. United fans, we've got a burgeoning trans-continental rivalry with the nice folks in Seattle.

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