After the LA Galaxy match last night against Real Salt Lake, Bruce Arena was asked about playoff seeding under the new format. In the course of explaining that he hadn't even sat down and looked at that, he was critical of the unbalanced schedule.
"The unbalanced schedule has really impacted the standings in both [conferences]. It makes no sense to have a Supporter’s Shield with an unbalanced schedule"
Is Bruce Arena correct? First we'd have to determine if San Jose had an unfair advantage amongst it's rivals in the Western Conference. Then, how that compares across conferences.
Every Western Conference team has three matches against Conference opponents and one against the Eastern Conference. So the first thing to determine would be the ratio of home and away games amongst the top four in the Western Conference playing each other.
If any club got the short end of the stick it was Real Salt Lake, with six matches on the road. Salt Lake has gone 3-2 thus far in those road matches with a match in Seattle still to go. Seattle are 2-3 in their six home matches, again with RSL still to come.
It's the Galaxy that both teams have beaten up on. Both those home victories for Seattle were against LA. Two of Salt Lake's three road victories have come at the expense of Los Angeles. The Galaxy still have two matches against top four clubs (San Jose, Seattle), but only have one victory over a top four team thus far; a come from behind victory at Salt Lake.
"You recognize a regular season champion," said Arena, "when not everyone’s played each other the same number of games. That’s incredibly odd. How that was designed I don’t know. Obviously in every division there’s an imbalance in terms of home and away."
What's clear is that the schedule does not favor each club equally, but yet that variability in strength of schedule isn't reflected in the standings. Seattle, losing twice to San Jose and once to Salt Lake, hasn't taken advantage at all of their schedule. Salt Lake has done well on the road despite their tougher slate.
San Jose, who like LA enjoy a relatively balanced distribution have just decided to beat everyone. The Earthquakes are 8-0 against the top four with a match against the Galaxy still to go. Still, while the schedule hasn't given San Jose an advantage in inter-conference play, it has given San Jose an unfair advantage in the Supporter's Shield race.
The Quakes played Sporting Kansas City once, in Kansas City, losing 2-1. Kansas City went 3-0-1 against the top of the Western Conference, but then had to go and sweat it out in the much more competitive Eastern Conference. The East has accumulated more points than the West (447-386), and only has one team (Kansas City) with a playoff spot wrapped up at the moment.
The advantage Kansas City enjoyed was hosting all but one of the top four Western Conference teams, managing a draw on the road to Seattle. However, they also had to play in a conference where only two out of ten teams have fewer than ten victories. The Western Conference has four, including one still in playoff contention.
So how does all of this play out? The unbalanced schedule certainly affects the competition, but as Arena said later, "Having said that, I think people enjoy playoffs." An unbalanced schedule is not put together in order to properly crown a regular season champ, it's done entirely in the interest of playoff seeding.
It creates an insular schedule where MLS clubs are competing almost solely against their conference. You simply can't compare across conferences anymore. The Galaxy haven't faced an Eastern Conference opponent since August.
Of course, the playoffs have changed to reflect this. No more sticking Western Conference teams in the East and vice versa. Under the old system, Seattle or Los Angeles could have lost their playoff spot to Houston. Instead now, Vancouver has a chance to upset one of those clubs.
The middle of the road clubs certainly must be thrilled. It keeps fans in Vancouver with a little bit of hope, with a reason to keep coming to matches. However, as Arena let be known last night, it's frustrating to the teams at the top. While the new schedule is creating a lot of drama, it also replaced games against Toronto FC with Salt Lake, the New England Revolution with San Jose.
"The hard part is trying to put teams on the field, producing good teams and all that kind of stuff. The schedule shouldn’t be as awkward as it is."
Does that make San Jose's run more impressive or less impressive than the Supporter's Shield winning Galaxy teams of the last two years? Certainly San Jose deserves all the advantages in the world come playoff time amongst its Western Conference compatriots. A just playoff system would place them in the MLS Cup.
However, deciding San Jose should host the Cup over Kansas City, when their schedules don't compare, feels arbitrary.