photo by Steven Bisig/USA Today Sports
By FRANCO PANIZO
NEW YORK — Last month, the Columbus Crew took two cross-country flights in the span of four days for a pair of road matches on opposing coasts. The Chicago Fire had a 20-day break that they labeled a mini-preseason. The New York Red Bulls also expressed their displeasure with the start-stop nature of their schedule.
None of that would happen in a perfect world, but Brad Pursel does not live or operate in a perfect world.
The MLS schedule has come under much scrutiny since the start of the 2015 campaign, especially in April as the league moved games to accommodate the Montreal Impact in their run to the CONCACAF Champions League finals. There’s been understandable complaints about lengthy travel, too many bye weeks, and long layoffs.
Enter Pursel. A 19-year employee of MLS, Pursel currently serves as the league’s vice president of club services. As such, he is the person who, by and large, handles the tedious process of creating the MLS game schedule every year. Hundreds, if not thousands, of hours go into that job, and there’s a number of variables that determine what the ultimate 34-game season looks like for each team.
The finished product is never ideal for all clubs, and Pursel is empathetic with them over the rough parts of the schedule, but he sees no way of pleasing everyone given all that has to be worked through.
“It’s just a matter of there’s not enough overall space in our calendar to have a perfect schedule for any of our teams,” Pursel told SBI. “That’s just the competition calendar itself with all the competitions that our teams are in, but it’s also stadium availability, travel issues, weather issues. You put all those factors in the mix, and it’s impossible to deliver perfect schedules for any individual team or overall, so we try to get the best possible schedule that we can.”
From his experience, Pursel believes scheduling issues even out. While the Colorado Rapids might have a stretch one year that forces them to travel 6,000 miles – as they did last week to take on the Red Bulls and LA Galaxy before returning home – they might avoid such a grueling road trip the following year.
That still does not stop teams, fans and media from complaining or criticizing the schedule. It is a subject that comes up often throughout the course of the year, especially around the time of FIFA international windows. While most leagues around the world take a break during those dates so as to not force clubs to play without their international players, MLS plays through them much to the public’s dismay.
Attempts have been made by MLS to avoid playing during the FIFA windows, but the league has determined that it’s just not feasible to go dark during all of them. MLS has, however, identified a few this year in which games do not necessarily have to be played.
“We determined we’d play through the March one, which we historically have done, and for June, September and October, the league is going to take the position, ‘We’re not going to schedule games on those dates,'” said Pursel. “However, we’ll provide the options to the team. If the clubs feel that it’s better for them to play on those FIFA dates because it relieves schedule congestion, gives them a better pattern to their overall schedule, it might be better for attendance, just better overall dates, then we will permit that if both teams who are playing in that game agree to it.”
International competitions also play a part in how MLS pieces together the enormous jigsaw puzzle that is scheduling. Last year, the league took a two-week break for during the group stage of the 2014 World Cup in an effort to avoid playing during the busiest time of the tournament.
This year and in 2016, MLS will have other summer obstacles to deal with. The 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup is scheduled for July, and the 2016 Copa America centennial that the U.S. Men’s National Team is guaranteed to take part in will be held next June.
Both tournaments fall at times in the calendar year when weather is favorable and kids are out of school, which is part of the reason why MLS is likely to play through them albeit with fewer matches than usual.
“Historically we’ve played through the Gold Cup, but we lighten the load a little bit, so we may not have a full slate of games on every weekend,” said Parsel. “We try to limit the number of midweek games that would fall during that time. July Wednesdays are our prime summer-selling Wednesdays, but we realize that we don’t want to have additional games during the Gold Cup so we reduce that schedule and try to fit them elsewhere where they can fall.
“As far as next year’s Copa America here, we haven’t decided yet what our position will be. My guess is we will treat it somewhere similar to Gold Cup, World Cup where we will have a reduced schedule of some sort.”
Adding more midweek games might make sense to help alleviate the schedule congestion throughout the summer and year, but there aren’t many teams that do well with attendance when playing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays. The Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City are among the few that routinely draw good crowds even when they are not playing on weekends, but they are the exceptions in a league of 20 teams.
Factor in the amount of other midweek competitions and there are really not many dates to cram games into.
“Really the available Wednesdays that are in the calendar are restricted,” said Pursel. “You have to stay away from all the U.S. Open Cup fixtures, you have to stay away from all the CONCACAF Champions League fixtures for those teams that have qualified, you have stay away from our All-Star Game date, we stay away from the Wednesdays that are on either side of FIFA date weekends, primarily we try to. We generally don’t schedule midweeks in March or April because the weather is not favorable.
“When you factor in all of those things, there’s only a handful of Wednesdays left that actually work and it’s usually in May, June – not July this year because of the Gold Cup – and then August.”
There is always room for improvement, of course, and the MLS schedule is not immune to that. While Pursel admits it would be nice to have fewer other competitions running concurrently with the MLS campaign, he knows that’s just not possible.
For now, issues like taxing road trips, rapid-fire bye weeks, and weeks of inactivity will persist, and both MLS and its clubs will just have to make due.
“Every year we’re trying to making minor revisions to get better,” said Pursel. “I don’t know that there’s one major thing to fix. I don’t think we can lengthen our schedule because we can’t go earlier because the weather would not permit it. We can’t go later for the same reason.
“I don’t think we can reduce the number of overall games we have, which would relieve schedule congestion but then the teams are not playing enough games to be competitive. It’s just a constant challenge each year with what we’re dealing with.”
I will agree that the LONG stretches of home or away or byes is just the worst. They *should* do better, but H/A/H/A/H/A is just oversimplifying things.
Brad Pursel,…..sorry pal but the scheduling is awful, awful, awful.
So listen up,…the customer/client is always right. Home, away, home, away, home, away etc., etc. repeat that over and over again. It’s not supposed to be 2 home games in four days followed by an away game three days later and then no games for the next three weeks!!! Whatever your formula is,…its wrong.
On top of that,…it’s bad enough that we have to look at conference standings instead of a single table,….but then to try to figure out where a team ‘stands’ in the league and realize that one team has played 10 games and another 4,…well that is just f$&/ing stupid.
All we hear about are these SSS,…and then we hear we have no control over the schedule??? What gives? Get it together, brother.
Good call – RBNY’s schedule this year is terrible. 5 weeknight games (2 Wed, 3 Fri.) out of 17 home dates and no home games from May 24-June 20, then 2 home games in 3 days, then one home game between June 24- August 9. They have trouble getting good crowds but Sat night summer games usually do really well. Won’t have too many of those this season.
This isn’t really correct–there are also efficiencies that can be reaped by grouping *certain* games together into trips, stadium availabilities that the *teams* count on (really their ownership groups making money of of hosting more events per year), etc.
A good schedule balances the competition with the business. It is really, actually hard.
Yeah I agree it’s hard but that doesn’t mean MLS isn’t doing a bad job.
I think rules need to be in place for friendlies. If a team wants to schedule a friendly after the season schedule has been released, fine, but make it fit into their schedule so they are the only ones impacted. Making other teams have to reschedule and suffer additional congestion is bad for the team and bad for its fans. I’ll tolerate it for Champions League and Open Cup matches, but not so you can play an expensive exhibition.
Whoa, how is a 19 year old the Vice president in MLS? What are his qualifications? He must be related to some there in MLS.
I read that as an employee who has been with the MLS for 19 years. aka a “19 year employee” (as written) not a “19 year OLD employee”
nice article Franco. now we all know the name of the guy in charge of the mess that it MLS scheduling!
I just really don’t understand the bye weeks when the amount of teams is evenly balanced (With the exception of champions league reasons). Give everyone byes on FIFA dates.
They should emulate Netflix. When Netflix wanted a better logarithm for guessing whether someone will like a film they put the data out to the public and had a contest. Netflix’s success rate was x percent and they wanted to see if someone could beat it. Someone did and that’s the rating system they use today supposedly.
MLS should do the same, put out last years schedule with all the variables and see who can beat what they managed to do in house. Give a set goal like minimizing travel distance, time away from home, conflicts with FIFA (wouldn’t that be nice) and bye weeks. It’s certainly possible that after 19 years maybe this guy has run out of ideas.
Sounds good except that I find the netflix recommendation system still sucks.
And it’s an algorithm, not a logarithm.
nice idea. id enter! i get its a difficult process and many variables to consider but I don’t think that improving the MLS schedule would be that difficult!
Simple solution. Adopt the FIFA schedule of August through May.
Yeah but who besides you is going to watch, in person, a New England or Toronto game in February!
or Houston or Orlando in May-Sept…
We need to just stop with the winter calendar talk. You can play a game in Houston in August at 7pm and expect fans to sit in the heat in a pair of shorts drinking a cold beer. It’s less realistic to expect fans to sit in long underwear and down coats at 2pm in Minnesota watching a game when it’s zero degrees with a negative 15 degree windchill. I frickin love soccer and live in MN, but I wouldn’t watch a game in freezing conditions.
or Salt Lake or Denver or Kansas City or Columbus or New York (x2) in February!
Have you ever been to the northern half of the US, let alone Canada, during winter? They play during winter in Europe but 1) most of Europe doesn’t get as cold as the northern US, 2) those places that do get that cold generally have a summer schedule and 3) they like soccer more in Europe than here.
I certainly don’t want to pay to sit in 20 degree (or less) weather to watch soccer. And I think it’s safe to say I’m in the top 1% of the general US population in terms of how much I enjoy soccer (as are many of the posters on this site). So if even I’m staying home, how big do you think those crowds would be?
Here’s a good way to free up some time, make the playoffs single elimination, higher seed plays at home. That would give you, what? Two more weeks? Start the season a couple weeks earlier and there you go, 5 more weekends for matches. Use two for decongestion, 3 for FIFA dates.
I take paypal Don.
Start the season a couple weeks earlier?? United’s first two home games this season were played in below freezing weather – and that’s in DC! You’re talking about games in late February in Boston, New York, Chicago, Montreal and soon St. Paul? Good thing you take pay pal, you’ll need it for the additional layers of under armour.
Actually, Minneapolis – not St. Paul.
Managers/players complain about the schedule in the EPL too… NBA coachs/players certain do as well.
Its a common theme in sports to complain about the schedule but lets see one of these players/managers make a balanced schedule for everyone taking into all the considerations…
Its a hard and seemingly thankless job… much like refereeing.
I agree and I appreciate Franco putting out a fair and balanced article on it.
We all have the same desires*, solving it is the hard part.
*ok, I dont have the same desire to switch soccer in the US to the winter. That is left for sick weirdos. I still enjoy cold beer on a warm summer night.
+1 on all three points, especially on the last
He mentions the All-Star Game, but none of the many in-season friendlies against foreign clubs intheir own pre-seasons. Eliminating those would help to mitigate the problem. He admits there are really not enough dates — so why add games that are in no way necessary? In part, this is a self-inflicted injury.
Except those friendlies make a lot of money and MLS is not a financial position to turn them down. Don’t get me wrong, I have no interest in watching these games but I don’t blame MLS teams for scheduling them in the least.
The Galaxy Way:
1. Schedule big famous teams during the busiest part of summer and at a 90000 seat stadium and all your 1st team players are playing for their respective national teams..and
2 Play the game with all a cameo appearance by your star players but most of the game with your subs, your lower division players and maybe even throw in a few academy players.
3. Lose 7-0
OK, but then they should stop complaining about fixture congestion. If money and exposure are that important, you pay in other ways.
For what it’s worth, I’m not complaining. Anyway, most teams only play 1 friendly, maybe 2 so it isn’t that big a deal.
But that is the problem in all of soccer, right? Need money, play another game. The Euro guys still have quite a few games left…and they will be here, in the US, putting out their hats for more money in less than two months. Much less in some cases.