With the rapid growth of Major League Soccer, they’ve had to switch around the season schedule seemingly every year. New teams added to the mix means that the schedule needs to be balanced.
How Many Games Are There in an MLS Season? There are 34 games for each team in the regular MLS season. The teams who reach the MLS play-offs can play up to 8 additional games, which means there are between 34-42 games per season for each team.
How Does the Schedule Work In MLS?
- MLS Regular Season: Late February – October
- MLS Play-Offs: November – December
- Off-Season: Mid December – Mid February
The regular season format has all teams playing 17 home games and 17 away games. Every team plays teams in their conference twice. That leaves eight games to play against cross-conference opponents. The cross-conference matches are randomized to attempt to make it as fair as possible.
The 2022 season is the first one in a couple of years that has not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that the schedule is back to normal, with the regular season starting at the end of February.
If everything stays together, the regular season ends the first week of October, leaving a month for the playoffs. Major League Soccer would love to continually have the MLS Cup Final in the first week of November.
What Is the Schedule for the MLS Playoffs?
At the end of the year, the MLS Cup serves as a postseason elimination tournament. It usually begins in the beginning of November, about a week or two after the MLS season ends.
The current format has the top seven teams in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, respectively, making the playoffs. The top overall team gets a first-round bye, while the remaining 12 teams play in the first round.
After the Conference Finals, the winner of the Eastern Conference battles the winner of the Western Conference for the MLS Cup.
The higher seeded team always plays the host in the playoffs. The team with the most overall points is the host for the MLS Cup Final.
While there have been talks in the past of having a neutral site for the final, MLS officials believe that more fans are willing to pack the stadium if the match happens on a team’s home soil.
Future Plans for MLS Scheduling
There is already an announced 29th team for the 2023 season. With St. Louis getting an opportunity to join, there’s a strong possibility that they will add at least one more team as quickly as possible to get back to an even number.
Priority will always be put on the conference schedule in the league. MLS officials seem pretty satisfied with the 34-game schedule right now, playing over a decade with that format. If the league stretches to 29 or 30 teams, that will limit some teams to just six cross-conference matches per year.
Why Does MLS Stress Conference Matches?
There are a few reasons why Major League Soccer has put such a strong emphasis on conference matches during the regular season. Although it prevents fans from getting an opportunity to see some of the league every year, it’s necessary to keep scheduling relatively even.
Postseason seeding relies heavily on the overall record. That means giving each team in a conference a similar schedule makes the most sense. Few arguments are coming from teams if they get the opportunity to win just like everyone else.
With an Eastern and Western Conference, teams get to cut down on travel. Major League Soccer might be growing, but they still don’t have the same amount of revenue as some of the other major sports in the United States. If teams can save on cross-country trips, it helps their bottom line.
For a relatively new league to thrive, rivalries need to pick up. The best chance of rivalries being created is to have teams play nearby opponents. For example, Columbus and Cincinnati are just one example of two teams near each other creating a rivalry based on location. There are rivalries between three teams in the Pacific Northwest, the two teams in Los Angeles, the two teams in Florida, and more.
A negative with this format is that fans won’t get a chance to see some of the top talent in the league. With no guarantee to play a team in a different conference, and a 50/50 chance of a cross-conference match being home, a player can spend years in the league and never play at every stadium.
With the expansion, there’s no realistic way to remedy this situation other than to expand the regular season.
Those against the rapid expansion of the league feel like it is quickly becoming two separate leagues that only meet in the playoffs. If a team lands a star player like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo in the next few years, only half of the league is guaranteed to get that opportunity to see them in person.
Will the MLS Season Remain the Same Forever?
Major League Soccer will likely have to make changes to the schedule at some point. The league is consistently growing, and there are talks of getting it all the way to 32 teams at some point.
Changes seemingly happen almost yearly, but it’s common for a league that’s been around for less than 30 years to tweak its system a bit to find something that works. Expect there to be some subtle changes, but nothing that completely overhauls the league.