Monday, February 06, 2006

The Bruce's take on improving the MLS

In Soccer America Magazine, US National team coach Bruce Arena (pictured) served up some of his ideas for making Major League Soccer better.

I think there's a lot of factors that go into making club soccer better. One thing that concerns me is that MLS games are not competitive enough. Not meaningful enough. And I'd like to see a mechanism in place that requires that each and every MLS game mean something.

My particular theory on the subject is that the regular season [should be] much more important than postseason and that the MLS champion comes out of the regular season. Bonuses for teams [should be] much larger for regular-season performances.

And then for MLS Cup, the postseason, I'd let everyone be involved. It extends the playing season for all the clubs, which they need. Seed the top four teams and give them a bye.

Right now if you win two games in a row in September, you're in the playoffs, it seems. It just seems that way. So you go through a whole regular season where the games don't mean a whole lot.

I think the regular-season champion [should be] the team that goes into the CONCACAF Champions Cup, not someone that wins a couple of games in the postseason.

Shortening the season makes sense and I am really surprised that they didn't do it for 2006. With the World Cup eating up the best players for over a month, why force games? All in all, having teams play each other only 2 times regardless of conference (currently teams play 4 times against conference teams and twice against non-conference), makes sense. An added advantage to this is it makes defining the best team in MLS easier because no one could argue that one conference is easier then the other.

MLS could make crown the winner the "League Champion" and give them the Supporters' Shield and the CONCACAF bid.

However, as Bruce points out, this system would only work if there were some other sort of tournament for the other teams to qualify into. This is where the MLS Cup would come in. Give the best teams a first round bye and let the others fight it out.

Actually, it might make the season that much more intense if you gave the top 2* teams a bye into round 3, the next 2-4 teams a bye into round 2 and made all the other teams start in round 1. It would be a MLS only version of the US Open Cup.

Getting a game or two off plus additional bonus money would provide players and coaches alike incentive to make sure that each match saw the best that they could offer.

Now I can see MLS's come back that this is too much of a different idea for casual soccer fans to grasp. They might be right, but the beauty of this is it doesn't matter if they don't grasp it. With teams playing better during the regular season, people are more likely to tune in. The team that plays the best all year long gets the best prizes, however, those are not the only prizes available.

A playoff style cup allows each team a chance to make up for any string of bad luck they might have had during the regular season. It also allows MLS to broadcast a cup final. There would still be bonus money associated with progression, but they just could not say they were the best MLS team for the year. Instead, they would say they were the best MLS Cup team of the year.

In many ways, MLS is already doing this, but just not to the extent to which Arena is suggesting. The Supporters' Shield is already given out, it's just not worth much. Short of relegation, something that is at least 20-years away in the US, this is the best way to keep all games interesting through out the entire season.

The MLS has a problem-keeping people in the seats towards the end of the season and the playoffs. By shortening the season and making the games matter more, the play will improve. Better play will result in more fans watching the games.

As far as the playoffs, by giving the best teams an actual advantage (unlike the current system), they stand a better chance of getting to the final. However, with everyone involved, there is still the chance of a Cinderella story (and everyone loves those).

Is this the best way for MLS to move forward, I don't know, but it is obvious that something needs to be done to improve things. Maybe using a system that is not really in use anywhere else will be the thing. This "Idea of the Bruce" seems to both make sense and encourage better play, so I hope it will be looked at further. Still, it is the MLS so who knows. Do they have a visitor’s section at games yet?

* When I first posted this, I listed 4 as the number of teams for the double bye, but I meant to type 2.

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