Unbalanced schedule in MLS raises debate before LAFC, Philadelphia battle to 2-2 tie
MLS is one of the few major first-division soccer leagues in the world that divides its teams — and its schedule — by conference. And for the uninitiated, that can be bewildering.
“I was really confused,” LAFC midfielder Ismael Tajouri-Shradi said. “You start following how the plan works in MLS and then ‘Wow, OK, wait.’ So you have to do this, you have to do that?”
Tajouri-Shradi, a Libyan born in Switzerland and raised in Austria, grew up following the top European leagues, where clubs play a balanced schedule, facing each opponent twice, home and away. The team with the most points finishes atop a single table and is declared champion.
In MLS, teams are divided by geography into two 14-team conferences, facing each team in their conference twice and playing eight other games against randomly selected nonconference opponents. The team that finishes with the most points in the regular season wins the Supporters’ Shield, but the league champion is decided in a 14-team playoff tournament.
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Which raises some issues worth debating: With an unbalanced schedule, do the overall league standings really matter? Is the league’s best team the Supporters’ Shield winner, which prevails over an eight-month, 34-game schedule? Or is it a playoff team that wins four games over three weeks?
As for which conference is better, that debate also remains unsettled after LAFC, the Western Conference leader, twice rallied from one-goal deficits to tie the Philadelphia Union, the Eastern Conference leader 2-2 on Saturday at Banc of California Stadium. LAFC got its goals from Mahala Opoku in the 57th minute and Franco Escobar in the 82nd. The Union’s scores came from Daniel Gazdag in the ninth minute and Julian Carranza in the 67th.
However LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo felt his team deserved more than just a point from a game in which it outshot the Union 22-10 and had 12 corners to one for Philadelphia.
“Given the statistics,” he said, “it’s very clear how this game should have ended.”
“We played well enough to win,” he added. “If you come away with three points tonight, nobody can watch this game [and] say it wasn’t deserved. But nonetheless, anytime you come back twice, you have to come away smiling. And we do.”
It’s not the first time the best in the East and the best in the West have had to settle with settling nothing; the Union and LAFC playing to three consecutive draws since 2019. Which brings us back to where we started: is there a fair way to determine which MLS team is really the best?
“If you don’t play a balanced schedule, the Supporters’ Shield does not recognize the best team. It recognizes the team with the most points,” said Bruce Arena, a five-time MLS Cup champion who won a record fourth Supporters’ Shield with the New England Revolution last season.
But, he added, with 28 spread across a continent “MLS is too big to have a balanced schedule.” So we’re just going to have to deal with the inconsistencies.
Consider, for example, the fact that six of the last nine Supporters’ Shield winners have come from the Eastern Conference but eight of the last 13 MLS Cup winners have come from the West, where the schedule is far more grueling. LAFC (7-1-2), for example, will travel more than 30,000 miles for its 13 Western Conference games, visiting three time zones and playing at mile-high altitude twice. Seven of those round trips will cover more than 2,500 miles.
The Union (5-1-4), like other Eastern Conference teams, will travel fewer than 14,000 miles for its 13 conference games, leaving the Eastern time zone once. And the closest it will come to altitude is the top floor of the team hotel. Seven of those trips will cover fewer than 1,000 miles.
“The East is way [more] comfortable, way easier because you get less travel, which makes your body, your legs more fresh,” said Tajouri-Shradi, who spent the last four seasons in the Eastern Conference with New York City FC.
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Travel isn’t the only thing that makes Western Conference schedules more challenging. So does the quality of the opponents.
Although New York City, the reigning MLS Cup champion, and New England, the reigning Supporters’ Shield winner, are in the East, so are Cincinnati, Inter Miami, D.C. United, the Chicago Fire and expansion team FC Charlotte, teams that have combined to lose twice as often as they’ve won over the last three seasons. The West, meanwhile, has Seattle, which last Wednesday became the first MLS club to win the CONCACAF Champions League in 22 years; LAFC, which made it to the Champions League final in 2020; and the Galaxy, the only five-time league champions.
“There are good teams in both conferences,” said Philadelphia coach Jim Curtain, whose team, like LAFC, has won a Supporter’s Shield but has never played in an MLS Cup final. “I don’t want to get into who’s better because I think it’s varied so much from year to year. The parity part of things is real. So you can make a lot of different arguments on that.”
Maybe. But LAFC started Saturday having gathered the most points, most wins and most goals of any team in MLS since joining the league in 2018, yet it’s finished atop the conference standings just once, further evidence of the West’s dominance. The Union is second in points and wins over that span and it, too, has won just one conference title.
Cherundolo, the team’s first-year coach, acknowledged that. However, like Curtain, he refused to debate what that all means.
“Yeah, I guess those are facts. You can’t change that,” he said. “It’s a bit hypothetical. We just have to treat it that way.
“I’m OK with it. I think we all accept the rules at the end of the season and we’ll accept the results.”