Empire XI: Keep MLS Realignment Simple


Christian Araos
Staff Writer

If there is one simplified thesis a person could write for a criticism of MLS, it would be that MLS tends to over-think things. Boil all your criticisms down to its lowest common denominator, this would be at the root.

Now comes an important logistical phase for MLS.  With three expansion teams set to join the league, realignment will have to be done — and done right.

New York City FC and Orlando City SC join the league in 2015 and the expansion franchise in Atlanta may be set to begin play in 2018. Those three teams would be placed in the East given how far west the Eastern Conference goes.  Under the current cartography, there would be 13 teams in the East and 9 in the West, which would alter scheduling, as well as the competitive balance of the league.  Leaving things in their geographic order would tip the competitive balance towards the West come playoff time.

While the consequences to the problem at hand are very serious ones for a league to face, the solution to the problem is almost so simple that it may be impossible to reach.

Here is the solution.  When Orlando and NYCFC join the East next year, move the Houston Dynamo out west. This moves MLS’ line of demarcation east, honors a legitimate rivalry in the Texas Derby, and most importantly, saves money, primarily on travel expenses. Since there are more cities in the Eastern portions of the country, it is perfectly fine that the East has an extra team.

When Atlanta joins MLS, move Sporting Kansas City out west and there is an even number of teams at 11. If it happens, David Beckham’s Miami franchise should also be in the East leaving MLS with two options when team 24 comes. If the team is west of Chicago, keep the new team in the West. If the team is east of Chicago, move the Fire to the West.

The MLS Line of Demarcation needs to move East. It is currently at Houston.  With the Dynamo there and all other teams East of there in the Eastern Conference, that line is farther west than the NHL or NBA, whose lines are at Detroit and Chicago, respectively.

Those lines were not arbitrarily established.  There are two factors that are considered when establishing a league’s line of demarcation: human geography and geography. Human geography is how humans interact with the land, and is important in this regard with the establishment of time zones and in population distribution. The NHL’s realignment is a good example with this in that all teams in the Eastern Conference are in the Eastern time zone. If MLS follows this example, their television plans become much easier to make as they would have all their East coast markets in the same conference allowing for a consistent time slot for a nationally televised match to be established.

Population distribution is also a key factor to consider. The most common way this is measured is by looking at the mean center of the population. This is defined by the US Census Bureau as:

The point at which an imaginary, flat, weightless, and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if weights of identical value were placed on it so that each weight represented the location of one person on the date of the census.

That center has shifted to the south and west and is now currently about 75 miles southwest of St. Louis. The closer a league’s line of demarcation is to the center, the more accurate the division between the Eastern and Western Conference. The center’s southern movement is also something to note as that is an indication of a population migration to the south. This can also be seen in the fact that the population of the South has increased the most according to the census bureau; another reason why MLS is heading South and also a key reason why all the Southern teams have to be in the same conference. The growing cities could foster rivalry games that will have conference implications and could be televised in the national window during the week.

Proximity fosters rivalries and it also keeps travel costs in check. As long as the league maintains its conferences, and a recent report from Brian Straus suggests that is the case, the league’s schedule will have to be unbalanced in order to emphasize conference games. It is also cheaper to have an extra trip in the region than to have what would amount to 12 out of region trips every year. Simpler terms: it is cheaper for the Vancouver Whitecaps to have an extra Cascadia Cup match than it is for them to make two annual trips to Miami and Orlando.

For MLS, the simple geographic measure of distance goes a long way in aligning a league.  It actually takes simple thinking for a relatively nascent league like MLS to align itself. The league’s center needs to be as close to the nation’s center of population in order to fairly represent the population. The Eastern Conference needs to have all its teams in the Eastern Time Zone so one-half of the league’s conference matchups can be scheduled simply with national television in mid and there needs to be a fair split of teams in East and West.

For a league whose fairest criticism is its complicated manner, the simple solution to this important issue is the best one.

Empire XI

1. If you were to make a list of things one does not say after losing 4–0 in a rematch of a title game, Eric Wynalda’s postgame comments would be a good place to start. Here’s a simple thing to remember about coach’s post-game comments coming from someone who has had to do plenty of post-game interviews and press conferences: most of the time, the coach is not going to tell you his exact thoughts because they see their job as a poker game. Now, Wynalda’s candor does not make him most coaches, but the why his candid response drew the reaction it did is why coaches do treat their jobs like poker games.  Anything a coach puts on the record will be scrutinized and he will be judged. We know Wynalda does not particularly care what we think, but a stubborn man just made a comment that showed quite a disconnect with reality.

2. It must be a sign of the times that the New York Cosmos can credit Instagram as an actual scouting tool. It’s a clever idea from Head Coach Giovanni Savarese that obviously worked to great effect. It is a story that has great viral potential: good for people across the country who don’t know what the NASL is, bad for fans who are following teams of all sports on social media. One of the things fans want from teams on social media is an all-access feeling. However, if opposing teams are finding usable information because of social media, it would be safe to assume that team’s content is going to be filtered even more than it is now.

3. It’s hard to get a firm grip on why the Portland Timbers are struggling. They struggle to create chances, then score four goals in a match, then only muster eight shots against a Chivas USA team that allowed an average of 14 shots in the previous three games. Besides giving up 22 shots against the Seattle Sounders, the Timbers do a good job of limiting chances for the opposition. However the telltale indicators come when you look at Portland’s final third activity. In Saturday’s draw, seven of their eight shots were taken outside of the box, increasing their total to 44 — nearly half of their total shots.

4. While the Timbers were guilty of shooting from too far away, the New York Red Bulls may be guilty of trying to shoot from too close. The Red Bulls had the right ideas working the two-man games on both flanks—especially on the right with Lloyd Sam and Kosuke Kimura—and by having a nice triangle in the attacking third with Thierry Henry, Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander linking up play with small tight passes. So Head Coach Mike Petke has a reason to be pleased with the attack, but will probably have an extra shooting drill or two put in place. Poor finishing is not a reason to hit the panic button and Petke is taking a deep breath before doing anything to that effect. Coincidentally, that may be the best message to send to the players in regards to finishing advice.

5. Besides the D.C. United rivalry and anytime the Red Bulls beat them, one of the best times for fan banter from the Red Bulls is the “This is Not a Rivalry ” line made towards the Philadelphia Union. For Wednesday, drop that. With the exception of the 2011 regular season finale where the Red Bulls defeated the Union to clinch a playoff spot, the Red Bulls have far more riding on this match than in any other of their encounters with the Union and need to play with the intensity that is normally reserved for rivals. Wednesday is the start of a critical three-game stretch against three early playoff contenders and with the first two games of that stretch at home, points dropped at Red Bull Arena in April will be points desperately needed to make up ground on in September.

6. One potential storyline for the third game of the Red Bulls’ stretch is if Columbus Crew center back Giancarlo Gonzalez gets suspended for knocking Chris Wondolowski down in an incident that received no initial discipline. The MLS DisCo has not been reluctant to discipline players for off-ball conduct like this so far this season; just ask Clint Dempsey who got two games for his incident. A two-game suspension for Gonzalez renders him unavailable for the Crew against the Red Bulls.

7. Regarding the Reuters poll piece that states that two-thirds of Americans won’t follow the World Cup, one-third of the country watched the Super Bowl and the sample size of the poll is less than one-thousandth of the US population — so carry on with your day.

8. ESPN’s Soccer Stories series begins tomorrow night with Hillsborough and it has received rave reviews. Journalistically, I am intrigued to see how it will depict The Sun for its role in shaping the public perception of the tragedy. As a viewer, it will be interesting to see how the emotional stories are incorporated into the narrative the movie will create. The movie airs Tuesday night at 8 pm on ESPN.

9. While Harrison Shipp is rightfully the early frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Thomas McNamara was having a very solid start to his rookie season with Chivas USA until suffering a non-contact knee injury. There is no need to fill this space with conjecture about the turf at Providence Field, especially since the injury is not currently known, but if McNamara or someone at Chivas USA does make that connection, it would be a charge that the Timbers and owner Merritt Paulson cannot ignore. Same applies to any team and its owner in any division of American soccer.

10. Congratulations to Kevin Alston on scoring his first career goal in the New England Revolution’s win against the Houston Dynamo. Alston only played in nine games last year as he fought and defeated leukemia. All the best for a defender who is about to turn 26 and still has plenty of good playing years ahead of him.

11. Get well soon Don Garber.

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  • Anonymous

    Just go to a single table already & forget this East/West garbage. Top what is it now half of the league makes the playoffs so just take the top 10 & off you go ! But this is MLS so they will do it their way so simple minded fans can follow East/West like every other North American Top Sports League.

    • patrick

      Look at the size of the United States compared to countries in Europe. A SINGLE TABLE DOES NOT WORK. I hate seeing people saying “single table, single table, all the European leagues do it”. Look at the USA! It is completely unfeasible, especially with a large league, to have teams travel that far all the time. It absolutely makes sense to have conferences.

    • Anthony

      why? It is exactly what it is

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