Is MLS's Unbalanced Schedule also Competitively Unequal? "Third Games"

Love it, dislike it or hate it, this season's unbalanced schedule in Major League Soccer has generated a lot of criticism, including from LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena who said, "I don't know how that ever got through, but I can tell you that most people think it's stupid."

Stupid or not, the two defenses I've heard in favor of this year's new unbalanced schedule are that it cuts down on travel in a league that spans an entire continent, and that it affects everyone equally so it's not worth complaining about. But, does it truly have the same impact on each team?

Earlier this season, we looked at how the unbalanced schedule has resulted in D.C. United having the toughest lineup of games against the Western Conference of any Eastern Conference team. Specifically, D.C. United has had to play on the road at four of the top five Western Conference teams, while the Chicago Fire get to play four of the top five Western teams at home.

But what about the games within the Eastern Conference? How has the unbalanced schedule affected the games Eastern Conference teams play against each other?

To quickly summarize this season's unbalanced schedule, each Eastern Conference team plays the 9 teams in the Western Conference only once for a total of 9 games. That leaves 25 games to be played against Eastern Conference teams, of which 18 are home and away games against each of the other 9 teams in the East. The remaining 7 matches are additional games (i.e. a "third games") played against 7 of the 9 other teams in the Eastern Conference.

So, what does the schedule of "third games" look like? In the first table below, all the "third games" against the teams currently in a playoff position in the Eastern Conference are listed. For example, D.C. United will play seven "third games" this season, one of which was the 2-2 draw at RFK on August 29th against the New York Red Bulls. (Note: If "N/A" is listed in the table, that means the two teams are not playing a "third game" against each other this season (for D.C. United, see Sporting KC and the Chicago Fire)).

Sporting KC New York RB Houston Dynamo Chicago Fire Columbus Crew
Sporting KC ----- Away, 20 Oct Home, 14 Sep Home, 28 Sep Away, 7 Oct
New York RB Home, 20 Oct ----- Home, 2-0 Home, 6 Oct N/A
Houston Dynamo Away, 14 Sep Away, 0-2 ----- Away, 1-3 N/A
Chicago Fire Away, 28 Sep Away, 6 Oct Home, 3-1 ----- Home, 22 Sep
Columbus Crew Home, 7 Oct N/A N/A Away, 22 Sep -----
D.C. United N/A Home, 2-2 Away, 0-4 N/A Home, 20 Oct
Montreal Impact Home, 22 Sep Home, 3-1 Away, 6 Oct N/A Away, 1-2
New England Revs Away, 0-0* Home, 22 Sep N/A Home, 20 Oct Home, 2-0
Philadelphia Union N/A Home, 27 Oct Away, 20 Oct Away, 3 Oct Home, 1-2*
Toronto FC Away, 1-2 N/A Away, 1-1 Home, 12 Sep Away, 28 Oct

The second table shows all the "third games" against the teams currently in the bottom five of the Eastern Conference, including D.C. United's next match against the New England Revolution at RFK on September 15th.

D.C. United Montreal Impact New England Revs Philadelphia Union Toronto FC
Sporting KC N/A Away, 22 Sep Home, 0-0* N/A Home, 2-1
New York RB Away, 2-2 Away, 1-3 Away, 22 Sep Away, 27 Oct N/A
Houston Dynamo Home, 4-0 Home, 6 Oct N/A Home, 20 Oct Home, 1-1
Chicago Fire N/A N/A Away, 20 Oct Home, 3 Oct Away, 12 Sep
Columbus Crew Away, 20 Oct Home, 2-1 Away, 0-2 Away, 2-1* Home, 28 Oct
D.C. United ----- Home, 3-0* Home, 15 Sep Away, 20 Sep Away, 6 Oct
Montreal Impact Away, 0-3* ----- Home, 27 Oct N/A Away, 20 Oct
New England Revs Away, 15 Sep Away, 27 Oct ----- Away, 6 Oct N/A
Philadelphia Union Home, 20 Sep N/A Home, 6 Oct ----- Away, 15 Sep
Toronto FC Home, 6 Oct Home, 20 Oct N/A Home, 15 Sep -----

* For games with an asterisk in the two tables above, the "third game" is actually not the last game played between the two teams this season. Due to MLS scheduling mysteries, some teams played each other twice in the same city before playing their last game in the other team's city. For example, D.C. United played the Montreal Impact consecutively at RFK on April 18th (a 1-1 draw) and then again on June 30th (a 3-0 win) before going to Montreal on August 25th (a 0-3 loss). In this case, I used the second game at RFK on June 30th as the "third game" because it is the extra game in the series this year.

Takeaways from looking at the "third games" as of September 9th:

1. D.C. United's slate of "third games" is pretty favorable. United only has to play three of the top five teams for a third time (that means they get to avoid an extra game against Sporting Kansas City and the Chicago Fire). And, two of their three "third games" against the top teams in the East are at home (the August 29th heartbreaking tie against the New York Red Bulls and the big October 20th match against the Columbus Crew on the second-to-the-last weekend of the season). The only top team D.C. United had to play a second time on the road was the Houston Dynamo (the 0-4 "did Bill Hamid really just do that" loss on July 15th). Finally, D.C. United's two remaining road "third games" are at the Eastern Conference's two weakest teams, the Philadelphia Union (September 20th) and Toronto FC (October 6th).

2. Columbus has the easiest schedule of "third games." They only have to play extra games against two of the top five teams (Sporting Kansas City and the Chicago Fire), meaning they avoid a "third game" against New York and Houston. And, they play Sporting at home (October 7th), leaving only the road trip to Chicago on September 22nd as an away "third game" against a team currently in a playoff spot. This also means they get to play "third games" against all five of the teams not currently in a playoff position, making them the only team that gets such a favorable draw.

3. New York has the second most favorable slate of "third games." They only have to play three of the top five teams, and all of those games are at home (an August 10th win against Houston, 2-0, with remaining home games against the Chicago Fire on October 6th and Sporting Kansans City on October 20th). And, all of their "third games" on the road are against teams not currently in a playoff position.

4. The Houston Dynamo have arguably the toughest "third games" of any Eastern Conference playoff contender. While they only have "third games" against three of the teams currently in a playoff position, they have to play all three of those "third games" on the road (with losses already on August 10th to New York Red Bulls, 0-2, and on September 2nd to the Chicago Fire, 1-3, and a remaining road game at Sporting Kansas City on September 14th).

5. The unbalanced schedule makes the rivalry cups almost meaningless. With the overwhelming advantage that home field brings in Major League Soccer, having a season-long rivalry cup competition such as the Atlantic Cup between D.C. United and New York Red Bulls doesn't make sense when one team plays twice at home and the other only plays once at home. Either give the cup away after every game in the series, or only count the home and away series each season (and not the "third game") towards the rivalry cup competition. This problem is even worse for the Cascadia Cup this year between the Portland Timbers, the Seattle Sounders, and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Of the six matches each team will play in Cascadia Cup games, Portland gets to play four at home (and two on the road), Vancouver plays three at home (and three on the road), and Seattle only plays two of these games at home (forcing them to play four on the road).

What about you? Do you think the unbalanced schedule gives an advantage to certain teams? Should the rivalry cup competitions be changed as long as there is an unbalanced schedule? Should MLS return to a balanced schedule next season?