In an attempt to reverse eroding support from the sport's hard-core fans, Major League Soccer announced sweeping changes yesterday that will bring the league's rules and operations closer to those used elsewhere around the world, starting next season.
"Our core audience has spoken," Commissioner Don Garber said, "and we have listened."
The most notable change will be the elimination of the shootout to break ties at the end of regulation, a procedure despised by players, coaches and most fans. Unlike most leagues around the world, however, MLS will play two five-minute sudden-death overtime periods before settling for a tie.
Other changes approved to meet international standards:
A standings-point system that will give three points for a victory (including in overtime), one point for a tie and none for a loss. MLS has been giving three for a victory, one for a shootout win and none for a loss in regulation or shootout.
The official game clock will be kept by the referee, unofficial scoreboard clocks will count up--not down, as was being done by MLS--and the referee will add injury time at the end of each half and in overtime at his discretion.
"There is a skepticism and a negativity that has been buzzing out there among the hardest of our hard-core fans that has reached a momentum that we needed to address," Garber said. "These are the first steps in trying to improve the fortunes of this league. . . . We're not done. We've got to take a look at what we need to do to continue to grow this league in this country."
MLS, in its fourth season, has had a gradual decline in attendance since averaging more than 17,000 per game in its first year, and television ratings have remained low. Garber, a former NFL executive, replaced Doug Logan in August and had recommended several of the changes after meeting with team officials, players and fan clubs.
Asked about the changes, D.C. United Coach Thomas Rongen said: "I love it. It's great for the league. We're almost there with the rest of the world."
The league also announced that:
The 12 teams will play in three conferences instead of two, with United joining Miami, New England and New York/New Jersey in the Eastern Conference. The Central will consist of Columbus, Tampa Bay, Chicago and Dallas; and the Western will have Los Angeles, San Jose, Colorado and Kansas City. The conference winners and the five teams with the next best standings point totals, regardless of division, will qualify for the playoffs.
The regular season, which lasted almost seven months this year, will start in mid-March next season and end around Sept. 1. The number of games per team may be reduced to 28 from 32 when MLS's board of governors meet today and Friday in Boston. The championship game, scheduled for Sunday this year, will be played in early or mid-October.
Broadcast partners ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 will show games live on 19 consecutive Saturdays. Garber had lobbied hard for the networks to provide what he termed "destination viewing"--a consistent day when fans can tune into games. Also, ESPN2 has agreed to add a one-hour show on Monday nights with a condensed game of the week and highlights.
MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation, which runs the national team programs, are working together to coordinate their schedules "so we're not competing with each other at the gate and competing for players," Garber said. For example, that means MLS probably will not schedule any games during the U.S. Olympic team's final qualifying tournament for the Sydney Games. That tournament will be held in late April.
MLS Notes: Los Angeles's Robin Fraser was named defender of the year, ahead of D.C. United's Jeff Agoos and Chicago's Lubos Kubik. Miami defender Jay Heaps beat San Jose midfielder Richard Mulrooney and Los Angeles midfielder Simon Elliott for rookie of the year.