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MLS should look to Liga MX to solve their Covid-19 schedule problem

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The answer to losing half the season to the pandemic lies south of border

America v Monterrey - Final Torneo Apertura 2019 Liga MX Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

What had been whispered around MLS circles the last week or two has now been spoken out loud: the league reportedly aims to resume play from its coronavirus-enforced hiatus in early July.

Despite there being only 25 weeks between the first full week of July and New Years 2021, however, MLS insists they plan to play out the remaining 32 games of the 34-game schedule. This is foolish.

Cramming that many games, and that much travel, into such a limited time frame would hurt the on-field product and, more importantly, grind the players into Soylent. That’s assuming venues that are shared with other tenants like Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field, and CenturyLink Field are even available. It’s not a tenable solution. It’s also worth noting that “early July” is starting to feel like an optimistic target, with some models showing the peak of Covid-19 hospitalizations not coming until... early July, so the timeframe may be even more compressed.

Some folks have started kicking around the idea of nixing the playoffs, which doesn’t feel right to me. Like it or not, MLS Cup is the league’s biggest event, and on this continent we like our champions to prove their mettle over the course of both the regular season and the playoffs.

There have been musings about realigning the calendar to fit with the big European leagues that begin their seasons in the fall and end in early summer, and starting a 2020-21 season this summer. Unless it’s something MLS had already planned to do, though, that seems like a massive overreaction, at least until climate change makes Toronto and Colorado and several other places playable in December and February.

No, MLS should play a truncated regular season and keep last year’s sprint of a playoff format. And, luckily for us, a template exists for how to come at this.

The Answer

For as long as anyone can remember, the Apertura/Clausura system has been widespread in Latin America.

Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and most of Central America, plus others, play two tournaments each calendar year. There is nothing preventing MLS from adapting that approach to the six months they’d have left in 2020.

Liga MX, for example, plays a single-table single-round-robin format each summer and again each winter, with an eight-team liguilla playoff crowning a champion after each. Until 2011, though, the Mexican league divided its 18 teams into six-team groups. (For reasons I don’t fully understand, they didn’t use the groups to set matchups, just for standings and playoff qualification purposes. That’s where I’d break with them.)

MLS should ape the old Primera División format for 2020: Split the league’s 26 teams into four groups — two with six teams and two with seven — and play a 12-match regular season from July 11 through October 3. Everyone plays the teams in their group twice and misses most everyone else. Teams in the two six-team groups would have to play a pair of extra games, which could either be third matches against certain teams in their group, or cross-division games if it makes enough geographic sense.

What about the already-played first two weeks of the season? Toss them out. Never happened. Freebies, false memories left over from the Beforetimes. It’s weird to negate results on the field, but we live in weird times. We’re starting a totally new setup for the shortened 2020, and it strikes me as better to ignore the random matches from before the outbreak. (That said, because everyone assumed the games would count when they were played, the league should absolutely count the goals and other statistics for all-time purposes. There’s going to be a lot of footnotes related to 2020, okay?)

The top four teams from each group would qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs, which would go on just like last year: a 16-team, one-off knock-out format between the October and November FIFA international windows. MLS Cup would be November 7, allowing for a “normal” offseason before the 2021 season’s late-February start. Even if the timeline to start play slips to August, there’s enough breathing room in a 12-game regular season/4-week playoff format to slide things back several weeks without having to scrap it altogether.

The 10 teams that don’t make the playoffs could play a consolation tournament in whatever format you like. It would be a way to keep those teams active during October (and keep gate receipts from plummeting to zero). It would also serve as an opportunity to give young players an extended run-out and give fringe players a potential extended tryout. You could also put some stakes on the line, like preference in the league’s various allocation mechanisms.

The Groups

There are a few different ways you could split the league into four groups. You could draw them randomly, for instance, but that would be hell for travel, which Don Garber and everyone else associated with MLS have been clear is to be avoided. (Something they happen to be right about.)

You could keep the conferences together in their current alignment and just cleave each into two. That might serve to preserve current rivalries in some cases, but it would also probably end up with pairings like Miami and Chicago in one group, and Minnesota and Houston in another, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.

One MLS Group Alignment Scenario

West A West B East A East B
West A West B East A East B
Vancouver Minnesota Miami Montreal
Seattle SKC Orlando Toronto
Portland Nashville Atlanta New England
San Jose Colorado Cincinnati NYC
LAG RSL Columbus NJ
LAFC Dallas Chicago Philadelphia
Houston DC

A better option, I think, would be to remix teams that aren’t right on the West Coast or in the Acela corridor into something more like South and Heartland groups.

A Preferable MLS Group Alignment

West Central South East
West Central South East
Vancouver Colorado Miami Montreal
Seattle RSL Orlando Toronto
Portland Minnesota Atlanta New England
San Jose SKC Nashville NYC
LAG Chicago Dallas NJ
LAFC Cincinnati Houston Philadelphia
Columbus DC

I admit there are flaws. Salt Lake and Cincinnati aren’t natural rivals. (In my defense, the middle of the country is really big and mostly empty. And I’m from there! Sue me.) And the groups might end up less than super-balanced competitively — I’m looking at you, The South; woof.

But, assuming the country can emerge from effective lockdown in time for MLS to resume play in 2020, this is the clearest path forward to both play something like a normal season, with playoffs, in a very limited amount of time.

Obviously, this is far from the most pressing matter on anyone’s plate at the moment. But it is a nice distraction from... all this... to think about what will come once sports, and physical human contact, are back. To that end, MLS should dispense with the notion that they’ll be able to fit anything close to a 34-game season and be ready with a new, one-time-only format once the cloud lifts.

Till then, stay safe, friends.