We have reached the point in the MLS regular season – 10 weeks and counting until the playoffs! – where players, coaches and supporters begin to take a hard look at the standings after every match.
Although more than half of the 19 clubs will head to postseason, we are seeing separation in each conference and the hopelessness shared by at least five sides. The West is falling into place, with 10 points separating fifth place – the last playoff slot – and the next challenger. In the East, the divide is just three points but with fewer clubs maintaining practical chances of advancing.
The Supporters’ Shield race is heating up: The San Jose Earthquakes – do they score in the final seconds every weekend? – in pole position at 47 points, four ahead of Sporting Kansas City and five in front of Real Salt Lake.
One large problem, however, skews the standings: matches played. MLS’s inexplicable scheduling has resulted in a maddening imbalance.
At 26 points, Chivas USA appears to have little hope of catching Los Angeles (36) for the last slot in the West … until you realize the Galaxy has played four more matches than its Home Depot Center housemate. D.C. United is just three points ahead of sixth-place Montreal … but has four matches in hand. Montreal is eight points ahead of Columbus … but the Impact has played six more than the Crew.
United played 15 league matches in the first 12 weeks. It then played seven in the next 11 weeks.
Granted, scheduling a seven-month MLS regular season is a thankless job. Aside from the 34 games per team, there is the CONCACAF Champions League at the beginning and end of the year involving just a few clubs; the U.S. Open Cup in the middle of the season; periodic FIFA fixture dates; and international friendlies in the summer.
There’s also the odd number of teams this year (19), resulting in a free weekend for one club. Unforeseen events also play a part: Columbus postponed last weekend’s match with Toronto FC to allow players to attend Kirk Urso’s funeral.
Nonetheless, you will rarely see wide discrepancies in other soccer leagues around the world. Non-soccer U.S. leagues also find a way to keep a relatively proper balance. The fact that they don’t have outside competitions is offset by the challenge of more teams and many more games to arrange.
In past years, MLS had to work around stadium conflicts with other organizations, namely the NFL. But as new soccer stadiums continue to open, MLS faces fewer facility issues. Only the New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders share stadiums with NFL teams. College football does pose conflicts in Washington (Howard University, one game at RFK Stadium) and Houston (Texas Southern, four at BBVA Compass Stadium during MLS’s regular season).
At this late juncture of the season, here’s the breakdown of matches played heading into Wednesday night’s three-game schedule:
25: Real Salt Lake, Los Angeles, Dallas.
24: Kansas City, New York, Houston, San Jose, Vancouver, Colorado.
23: Chicago, New England, Seattle.
22: D.C. United, Toronto, Portland.
21: Philadelphia, Chivas USA.
The situation was similar at this point last season as well, with a range of 21 to 25 matches played.
MLS has added perspective by including a new category to the standings: points per game. That helps. And in the end, the schedule will even itself out.
But in future years, the league needs to do better.