Big Changes Coming in 2012 For MLS

The year after breaking its all-time attendance record and surpassing both the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League in average attendance, Major League Soccer has announced major changes to its regular season schedule and post-season.  In 2011, the MLS added the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps FC to the Western Conference as expansion teams, moving the Houston Dynamo to the Eastern Conference (setting the stage for Sunday’s MLS Cup in which Houston will represent the Eastern Conference facing the Los Angeles Galaxy) and lengthening the schedule.  The league employed a 34-game schedule in which each club would face every other club twice, once at home and once away, in a balanced schedule format.  The top three teams in each conference plus the next four clubs with the best record regardless of conference qualified for the MLS Cup Playoffs, allowing for the cross-over rule, also used in the Canadian Football League, in which a club from the Eastern Conference could enter the Western Conference playoffs or vice-versa.  The Wild Card round was played between the four wild card teams while the remaining six clubs earned a bye.  The Wild Card Round was a single game, the Conference Semifinals a two-game aggregate series, the Conference Finals a single game, and the MLS Cup a single game as well.

However, major changes have been made as the Montreal Impact enter the league as the lone 2012 expansion team, thus creating an odd-numbered 19-team league, forcing an imbalanced schedule.  Under the new format, the schedule will remain at 34 games, but clubs will play other teams in their own conference more than clubs in the other.

In the 10-team Eastern Conference, which includes the Chicago Fire, clubs will play seven of their nine conference rivals three times (21 total games), and the remaining two clubs two times each (4 total games), and each Western Conference club once (9 total games).  Western Conference clubs will see a different format, playing each conference opponent three times (24 total games), playing four twice at home and once away and the other four twice away and once at home, with the location arrangement to be reversed in 2013.  Western Conference clubs will also play each Eastern Conference club once (10 total games).

Due to the imbalanced schedule, the cross-over rule has been eliminated and adjustments have been made to the playoff format.  Being eliminated with the cross-over rule are the wild cards, with the MLS opting to change the playoff qualification system to include the five teams with the best point totals in each conference instead.  Replacing the Wild Card Round will be a play-in in which the 4th seed hosts the 5th seed in a single game, with the winner advancing to the Conference Semifinals.  The Conference Semifinals will remain a two-game aggregate series, with each club playing one home game and one away game.  The Conference Finals, previously a single game, will also become a two-game aggregate series.  The MLS Cup will remain a single game, but will now be played at the home field of the higher-seeded club rather than at a predetermined “neutral” site.

With the Montreal expansion, the league’s alignment changes very slightly, with no moves being made other than Montreal’s addition to the Eastern Conference.

Eastern Conference:

  • Chicago Fire
  • Columbus Crew
  • D.C. United
  • Houston Dynamo
  • Montreal Impact
  • New England Revolution
  • New York Red Bulls
  • Philadelphia Union
  • Sporting Kansas City
  • Toronto FC

Western Conference:

  • C.D. Chivas USA
  • Colorado Rapids
  • FC Dallas
  • Los Angeles Galaxy
  • Portland Timbers
  • Real Salt Lake
  • San Jose Earthquakes
  • Seattle Sounders FC
  • Vancouver Whitecaps FC

The format may change slightly in 2013, as the MLS intends to add another expansion team in New York (preferably the Cosmos) or elsewhere if the second New York club proves not to be possible, in which case the Houston Dynamo would likely move back to the Western Conference.  However, these changes all seem to be for the better, brightening the future for a league already rapidly growing in popularity and size.

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