The conference finals and MLS Cup promise more terrific theater — if we ever get to them.
Say what you want about the number of teams and the structure; the postseason calendar is also impeding the league’s growth.
After 12 matches over 12 days, the schedule will screech to a halt and then take odd turns before drawing to a close the second weekend of December, the latest in MLS’s 21 seasons. That’s all of five games in almost five weeks, culminating Dec. 10 in potential chilly conditions in Denver, Toronto or Seattle. (As the lowest survivor, Montreal can’t host.)
In fairness, the FIFA international window, stocked with World Cup qualifiers, is forcing a pause between the conference semifinals and finals this coming weekend. Wisely, MLS did not defy protocol and schedule games while clubs were shorthanded and attention diverted.
But instead of picking up where it left off the following weekend (Nov. 19-20), MLS has pegged the first legs of the conference finals for a Tuesday night (Nov. 22), the start of the Thanksgiving getaway. (That’s American Thanksgiving, of course. Fans in Montreal and Toronto celebrated last month.)
There is an explanation here, as well. The Western finals were to begin on a Sunday (Nov. 20), but with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks hosting the Philadelphia Eagles that day, the Sounders’ home leg against the Colorado Rapids was pushed to Tuesday the 22nd.
All along, though, the Eastern opener was slated for Nov. 22. Why Tuesday? The league saw an opportunity to showcase a game on a light sports day and avoid getting lost in the weekend shuffle.
In both the East and West, the weekday dates will not damage ticket sales: Seattle is the long-standing MLS attendance king, while Montreal, in anticipation of increased interest (as well as possibly foul weather), will host Toronto inside Olympic Stadium. Utilizing an alternative venue is not unprecedented: Early-season cold prompted the Impact to schedule the first two matches of the year indoors. Last year, the club played CONCACAF Champions League games at the Big O.
Weeknights are problematic for TV purposes: An East Coast game conflicts with West Coasters returning from work, while a West Coast game does no favors for East Coasters setting their alarm clocks. (Midwest viewers fall in the sweet spot.)
The return legs of the conference finals are not on the same day, instead falling three days apart: Seattle at Colorado on Nov. 27 (a Sunday at 4 p.m. ET) and Montreal at Toronto on Nov. 30 (a Wednesday at 7 o’clock). Both home teams should have no trouble selling tickets. The same philosophy applies: one match on a lighter sports day. ESPN has the weekend match, FS1 the weeknighter.
In line with the scheduling gap, the Western winner will enjoy an extra 72 hours to prepare for MLS Cup. The final is not right away, though, so the Eastern representative might end up benefiting from less inactivity. Again, though, MLS will have gone dark for an entire weekend (Dec. 3-4).
MLS did lock into a prime slot for the championship match: the first Saturday night final in league history and the first standard network TV presentation in eight years (Fox). There’s no college football, NFL or European soccer occupying potential casual viewers.
The broader question facing MLS is whether, at the end of a drawn-out calendar, the playoffs will have kept the attention of fans beyond those supporting the participating teams and whether a longer build-up to the marquee match will help re-engage those who have already moved on.