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MLS breaks with tradition, will no longer have every team face every other team

Seattle Sounders midfielder Victor Rodriguez dribbles during MLS Cup. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

MLS teams will not play every other franchise at least once next season, a departure from scheduling since the league launched in 1996.

With expansion to Miami and Nashville growing the field to 26 teams and the number of regular season matches staying the same (34), clubs will play only 10 of 13 teams from the other conference.

MLS said Monday that Inter Miami will compete in the Eastern Conference while Nashville SC will join the Western Conference. Every team will play 24 intraconference matches (home and away against all others) and 10 interconference matches.

This past season, each of the 24 teams played the 11 conference rivals twice and all 12 teams in the other division once.

The simplest solution would have been to expand the regular season to 37 matches per team. However, that would have caused greater congestion in an already tight calendar. Further expansion would pose a fresh set of problems.

Austin will join in 2021, then St. Louis and Sacramento in 2022. Charlotte is the favorite for the 30th team. It’s unclear whether the league will stay with two conferences or switch to three.

MLS is in the process of finalizing the 2020 home openers and hopes to unveil the complete schedule by the end of the month. The season will kick off Feb. 29, a week earlier than this year and the earliest start in MLS history.

D.C. United is tentatively scheduled to play its first two matches at Audi Field, on March 1 and March 7. The release of the full schedule will come with greater anticipation than usual as teams wait to learn which clubs they will not play.

Eastern Conference teams, for instance, would not mind skipping the defending champion ­Seattle Sounders; Los Angeles FC, the winner of the Supporters’ Shield (most regular season points); or a road match against the Vancouver Whitecaps because of travel considerations.

Western teams would prefer to not play on the narrow dimensions at Yankee Stadium (New York City FC).

The new format will take some luster off winning the Supporters’ Shield because of the increasingly unbalanced nature of the schedule. Traditionally in soccer overseas, teams play home and away against every other club.

The playoff format is expected to remain the same: seven teams in each conference competing in single knockout matches, culminating with MLS Cup in November.

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