MLS Expansion: How will a 24-team league look? Rule 1 for conference alignment must be to protect rivalries.

Long Tan's return to MLS as a member of Orlando City SC is a foregone conclusion, but how will the league look once he arrives? - John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

With Don Garber's announcement at this week's MLS All Star Game that the league would be expanding to 24 teams by 2020, the time is now to ask how the league's conference system and schedule can be structured during and after the expansion phase.

Well, so much for standing pat at 20. The Don, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, announced at the MLS All Star Game in Kansas City that Major League Soccer will not, in fact, be spending some quality time as a 20-team league after the entry of New York City FC in 2015. No, instead, by 2020, MLS will jump to 24 teams. I could feign surprise that the league is backtracking on holding at 20, even for a short time, but who really didn't see this coming? With speculation that Orlando City SC could be joining the league as early as 2015 - the very same time that NYCFCWTFLOLBBQ will be coming into the league - it is looking more and more likely that MLS will spend zero time as a 20-team league, jumping after next season directly from 19 teams to 21, with more to follow.

So, without trying to predict which specific cities will have teams entering the league over the next six-or-so years, let's try to establish some ground rules for how the league's competitive aspects - conference alignment and schedule construction - should be handled, both during the expansion phase, and once it's (hopefully!) completed at 24 teams. As a preface, let me say that I am at least trying for realism here, so this post will not involve hand-wringing over the mere existence of conferences (as opposed to a single table) or the unbalanced schedule (which ain't going anywhere). Promotion and relegation are right out.

With those caveats out of the way, let's get to it.

Conference Alignment

I am of the opinion that the league should be split into as few competitive divisions as is practicable. In a country the size of the U.S. and in a soccer league expanding past 20 teams, the minimum number you'll ever see is two. If MLS can expand to 24 teams without spawning a third (or fourth!) conference, that should be a priority. Unnecessarily creating more divisions than necessary creates competitive imbalances, blessing teams in weak divisions with better postseason chances and cursing those teams in stronger divisions. The same is true even when splitting into two conferences (as many fans of Western Conference MLS teams will tell you, at length). But, the reality is that MLS will not be moving to a single table at any time in the foreseeable future, so two conferences becomes the realist's ideal.

The number of conferences, however, should be subordinate to a higher priority: protecting the league's big geographic rivalries. D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls should not be split up, and the other teams on the I-95 corridor - New England and Philadelphia - should probably be kept together with them, as well. The Cascadia teams need to be together. The California teams need to be together. The Rocky Mountain Cup teams should not be cast into different divisions, and neither should the Texas teams (a situation that MLS has gotten wrong in the current arrangement).

Ask Don Garber or the suits at ESPN and NBC Sports, and they'll tell you that what drives MLS's growth is, first, the supporters and atmosphere at the games and, second, these rivalries, where the intensity on the field is matched only by the passion in the stands. Rivalries, especially the convenient geographic rivalries, are the league's lifeblood, and they need to be protected wherever possible.

Here's my first cut at a list of the rivalries that the league should make every effort to protect by putting the teams into the same conference/division/whatever:

  • I-95: D.C. United, Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution. This is the most densely populated and easily travelled area of the country, and visiting support is nearly always a factor when these teams play each other. Breaking these teams up borders on lunacy.
  • Texas: Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas. This should be a no-brainer in the second-fastest growing state in the country (well, third, if you count DC). Splitting up these two was a mistake, even if it did allow for more parity between East and West.
  • California: LA Galaxy, Chivas USA, San Jose Earthquakes. The California Classico has taken on more significance in the last couple years, probably even surpassing the Superclasico, at least for national audiences.
  • Cascadia: Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps. If you want to split these teams up, something is seriously, seriously wrong with you. In the head. And probably other places, too.
  • Rocky Mountains: Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids. To lean on a cliche, these guys don't like each other, and they comprise one of the league's underrated rivalries.

There are a couple other clusters that the league should try to protect, but to my mind they represent a second tier and should only be accommodated once the previous list has been secured:

  • Midwest: Sporting Kansas City, Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew. Even in the openness of the Midwest, these teams are closer to each other than they are to most of the rest of the league. Having come from the Midwest (Hoosier by birth, Boilermaker by the grace of God), I can vouch for the notion that intra-region rivalries are important, but if the Sporks and the Crew were split into different conferences, I don't think it would be as big of a loss as splitting the Texas teams has been or as casting off one or more I-95 teams would be.
  • Canada: Toronto FC and Montreal Impact. Sorry, Whitecaps, I've jettisoned you from the Great White North due to your being way, way the hell out west and also a part of Cascadia. The remaining two clubs come from Canada's two largest markets, and like the Midwest, intra-Canadian rivalries are a real thing. But with both teams being relatively new additions to the league, there are again worse possibilities than splitting them up, though I think I would protect this budding rivalry over the midwestern triad above.

The midwestern teams, in particular, look the most likely to be split up as the league grows. With the Eastern Conference already one bigger than the West and two east coast teams champing at the bit to start play in 2015, somebody is going to have to change conferences. The simplest solution would be to move Houston back into the West, reuniting them with Dallas, but another option merits consideration: Keep Houston where they are, move Dallas to the Eastern Conference and slide Kansas City and Chicago to the West in a move that NHL fans would either find hilarious, cathartic or annoying. Admittedly, the rivalry that has begun to develop between current Eastern powers Houston and KC is a good one, but it strikes me as more a rivalry of the now, built on recent playoff clashes rather than anything deep-seated or innate between the two fan bases. That said, there is also a nascent rivalry, based on geography rather than competitive circumstances, between supporters of the Sporks and the Rapids. Moving KC into the West would facilitate that growing contingent of road trippers.

Either path ensures some flexibility for future expansion, whether it looks more likely to occur in Atlanta or Miami, Minneapolis or St. Louis, Austin or San Antonio, or San Deigo or Las Vegas. (Obligatory additional shout outs - shouts out? - to strivers in Sacramento and Naptown's Indy Eleven.) It may well be that, during the transitional phase between 2015 and 2020, one or more teams may be forced to change conferences more than once. Without foreknowledge of which bids will be successful, that situation may be inevitable. While it should be minimized if possible, I would accept that kind of "upheaval" if it means that the league's key rivalries are protected and we end up with the fewest practicable number of conferences.

Scheduling

For better or worse, we know a balanced schedule is out of the question for MLS from this point on, and I think it is a safe bet that - at least until the league blows past 24 teams on their way to whoknowshowmany - the 34-game schedule is here to stay. Say what you will about it's drawbacks, but the conference-based schedule does reduce travel and ensure more opportunities for the local rivalries to blossom.

The end game for schedule construction is actually painfully simple: With two twelve-team conferences, each side will play the teams from its own conference twice (22 games) and each team in the other conference once (12 games) for a 34-game calendar. As with the present, the trick will be ensuring an equitable distribution of home and road games for the inter-conference games, but that's more down to the implementation than anything I could write here. The more interesting, and more pressing, question is what to do starting in 2015 when one or two new teams enter the league.

At present, each team in MLS is guaranteed to play everybody from its own conference twice, and everybody from the other conference once. To bump the total games to 34, teams then play additional in-conference games against - you guessed it - historical/geographic rivals. And this is exactly the way it should stay as the league grows to 24 teams. Honestly, its a solution that works so well, it's a bit of a wonder that MLS came up with it. As new teams enter the league, the number of "third games" (as Stephen Whiting has called them) each team plays will drop, ultimately to zero with the entry of Team 24.

Once we go past 24, the question becomes more difficult. Either the semi-balanced (play everybody, balanced within conference) or the 34-game schedule will have to give. Ideally, it will be the latter, and we will see the number of games rise to 37 if we see a 26-team league or to 40 if we arrive at a (God forbid) 28-team league. If we get to 30, somebody else will have to game out the schedule because I quit.

* * *

So what's your take? Once NY2 and Friends enter the league, how should MLS align its conferences and construct its schedule? Have your say in the comments below.

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