MLS has come out today with the schedule and playoff format for the 2012 season, and already the Twitterverse has blown up about it. As expected, gone is the balanced schedule of playing each team home and away. Back is the conference heavy schedule designed to cut down on travel for most teams (save Houston who is still separated from Dallas and will now play their closest rival only once next year). Sporting KC and the Eastern Conference have the more complicated of the two schedules. In the West they'll play each team in their conference 3 times (4 with 2 home games, 4 with 2 away games), and one game against the 10 teams in the East to get them to their 34 games. The East, as I mentioned is much more complicated. Sporting KC will play 7 teams from the Eastern Conference 3 times (21 games) and will play the other 2 teams in the East twice each (4 games). Sporting will play each team in the West once (9 games) to get to their 34 game schedule.
As I said originally, the MLS world has blown up since this announcement has come out. People are mainly upset about the loss of the balanced schedule. I can't say I'm happy about that change either, I like the balanced schedule it made things equal for all teams. But it a way it certainly makes sense to do this, especially for the coastal teams. The example I saw was that Vancouver traveled over 55,000 miles for their league games last year, while Manchester United traveled just over 3,500 for their 19 away league games. That mileage is a huge reason for the change from a balanced schedule.
The playoff format for next year was also announced. The league will stay with the 10 playoff teams, but now there will be 5 guaranteed spots for each conference. There will be no cross over between the two leagues in playoffs. So gone (at least for the time being) of the New York Red Bulls representing the Western Conference in the MLS Cup finals. The 4th seed will host the 5th seed in the wild card round in a single game, with the winner playing the highest seed in each conference. The Conference semifinals will remain the same as they were this year, a two legged series. The Conference finals though will now become a 2 legged affair with each team getting a chance to host.
The other big change to the playoffs is that MLS Cup will now be hosted at the highest remaining seed. This will guarantee a better crowd for the final instead of what was a mostly an apathetic crowd last year in Toronto for Dallas-Colorado. It will put a wrench in many of the events outside the game itself that the league and fans put together, like the league's meetings and big time sponsor events, but I think MLS is looking more towards having an active crowd at the final.
As I said earlier, I'm not a fan of these changes as a whole, but they were coming. The league wasn't going to expand the schedule to 36 games, it would have made an extremely tight schedule for the time frame (especially if MLS is going to avoid FIFA dates next year as rumored). And would also bring in more midweek games, which is still a struggle for the majority of MLS teams attendance wise. The part that really bothers is the messed up scheduling of in conference games and the fact that now two of KC's closest road trips (Colorado and Dallas) will now not happen every year. But again this was coming, the league wasn't going to keep the balanced schedule.