Brief Thoughts Preceding the 2023 Major League Soccer Season
Plus some Exciting News!
MLS, as the marketing materials state, Is Back. My first instinct when I get the impetus to write about MLS is to spend about a paragraph apologizing for writing about it, but I’m going to skip that for this entry and just get to my real thoughts, with the acknowledgement that I want to write (and, more specifically, publish) on MLS more frequently than I do at the moment and I don’t think that JoeBush.net will be the platform on which I do that going forward, as I don’t like using Wordpress that much anymore and I gather that many of my readers don’t come to me for those opinions, so look out for that going forward.
This is going to be an interesting year for MLS. This is season 28. This is the first year in a decade that we’ve started the season without a definitive understanding of where the next expansion team will at the very least be located. This is the first year of the new deal with Apple. This is the first year in the period between the 2022 World Cup and the 2026 World Cup. It feels like I can always do this, like every year is going to be an interesting year for MLS, every year is the first year of some new thing with this league (last year was Charlotte FC and no COVID restrictions, 2021 was Austin FC, a new CBA, and the U22 Initiative, obviously everything went down in 2020, and so on and so forth). This feels different, though.
I think it’s the Apple deal primarily and the expansion uncertainty secondarily. The fact that TV’s going to be so consolidated under one umbrella feels significantly different from the perspective of a fan, compared with the piecemeal of RSNs and local OTA channels under the half-functional blackout-burdened holding zone of ESPN+ and MLS Live. It already seems quaint, downright unacceptable, in retrospect, that I was unable to watch matches involving the Colorado Rapids from my home in Lawrence, Kansas because I’m deemed to fit into the Denver, Colorado metropolitan area for some reason. I recognize the criticism levied at the Season Pass deal – particularly that it’s going to be harder to get casual or non-internet savvy fans on board, something the league’s going to have to work on – but I’m really just happy to be able to see it all in such a well-produced and streamlined format as this. After spending 2021 struggling to watch Sporting KC on Bally Sports KC (and continuing to struggle to watch the Royals into and through this year) I really think that the new deal’s going to be good for fans like myself.
The expansion thing is only significant because I think it represents an end to a certain era of MLS. We’ve had seven straight seasons of expansion, and even in the years without a new team entering the league, like 2016, 14, and 13, we knew where the next team would be located, and in most cases when they’d begin playing. This era of consistent growth year-by-year, in which the infrastructural quality and geographic makeup of the league would be altered slightly each spring. We’re entering into a time of something resembling a congealing of the construction of the league for at least a brief period of time. The last time that we were in this situation, DC United was the closest thing to a team in the Southeast, the New York Red Bulls were making big-money glamor signings, and the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City were Eastern Conference rivals. The season schedule back then was nearly completely balanced, and only ten teams made the playoffs. About that:
Regarding the New Playoffs
As of yesterday, we’re now looking at an eighteen-team playoff field, with a whole new format to go along with it: A play-in round between the ninth and eighth seeds in both conferences, followed by a round of 16 composed of three-match series (high seed gets two home games, low seed hosts the middle one), followed by single-elimination conference semifinals, conference finals, and the MLS Cup final. It’s different, it’s obviously controversial, but once the knee-jerk bitterness of a change to a format I liked subsided, I’ve found myself somewhere between contented and optimistic about this new change.
I’ve seen and personally felt three primary criticisms regarding this change: First, it seems cynical, nakedly intended to increase TV revenue and ticket sales with no high-minded concept of the good of the game, determining a true champion, or necessarily the entertainment value of the games involved. Part of the reason why this seems like a betrayal to some is that the prior change in 2019, from the wild card rounds and 2-legged ties to the straight single-elimination throughout the entire tournament, was, to some extent, implemented because the prior system worked out in a way that benefited the lower-seed, and in that rare example, MLS showed the ability to act in a manner that prioritized entertaining soccer over expanded TV inventory and guaranteed home games.
It’s no coincidence that this change happened at the same time as the Apple deal came into place, and I operate under no illusion that MLS is some pure labor of love run out of a love of the game, but I don’t think these changes are necessarily going to be detrimental to the fan or the entertainment value of the matches, only different. Yes, we’ll lose the intensity guaranteed in every single-elimination playoff game, but pitting two teams against one another multiple times in a short time span should create some intensity of its own. The first game of three in a round might not be as intense as the single-elimination matches were, but games two and three will always have elimination at stake. The idea of each playoff qualifier getting a home game has grown on me as well. We’ll get the chance to see home stadium atmospheres from fanbases that haven’t had the opportunity for one in a long while, which will be obviously good for match-goers and will bring good variety for those of us watching at home. One round of three-match series can be highly entertaining, just in a different sense from the way that the single-elimination rounds were, and I suspect that it will still leave viewers feeling that the better team advanced after the waves calm, but that knowledge will come in time. Giving the higher-seeded team two games to the lower-seeded team’s one game should hopefully give that team an advantage, which leads into the second point of criticism –
With eighteen teams, it’s too easy now to make the playoffs, rendering a higher finish in the regular season less important than it was in the fourteen-team era. I understand this worry, but that’s a personal judgment. I find the “this renders season tickets worthless” argument a bit melodramatic, or at least incongruent with the way I approach watching a soccer match in-person. The shift in impact for most teams will be from a question of qualifying to a question of seeding, and, though, again, we’ll have to wait and see what it looks like in practice, I assume that the added travel burden put on a team that finishes from 5-9 in their conference will lead to the three-match series still favoring the higher-seed in a way that the two-legged ties didn’t (there was always something paradoxical about the higher seeded team having to take two travel days during the tie versus the lower-seeded team having to take only one and it bared out that the lower-seeded team won in the two-legged tie something like 60% of the time, which would reflect a less meaningful regular season). I think the play-in round benefits the team that finishes first in the conference as well, giving them a team coming in on tired legs right off of an intensive mid-week match for the first match of the first round. It won’t be a bye, but that first series should significantly favor the one-seed in a fashion in which the time off didn’t always, as the experiences of the 2021 Revs and Rapids might indicate.
Another shift will come from the way we view playoff qualification: It’s no longer going to be ‘good enough’ just to qualify, and it’s going to become something like an unforgivable sin to miss them. There remain regular season incentives outside of the playoffs, like the Concacaf Champions League and Leagues Cup group hosting responsibilities. I think (or at least my hope is) that through these factors, winning matches and finishing high in the table will matter to teams for a reason other than strictly pride.
Thirdly, this new format is getting criticism for being confusing. From a soccer perspective, nobody else does this sort of thing. Even in American sports, nobody else has fewer contests as the tournament progresses the way that MLS now will (MLB currently goes 3-5-7-7, NBA and NHL are 7s all the way through, MLS is the only one in which we go from multi-game series to one-offs). I get it, especially since this is so anomalous both in the American professional sports context and the global soccer context, but I feel like we’ll get used to it over time, like we have and do with the relatively arbitrary constructions of most professional sports’ postseasons. They used to just play the season and go right to the World Series when my grandfather was in his youth – and maybe that was a better way to do it, maybe I’d care more about baseball if they still did it that way, but I’ve enjoyed the current construction of the MLB playoffs too.
If everything was up to me, I probably wouldn’t have changed the playoffs, but I’m not setting a pitchfork ablaze about it. It’s going to satisfy the financial needs of most parties involved in that sense, and it (probably, though I’ll change my tune if it turns out this way) won’t render the regular season unimportant, as the benefit of finishing in the top half of the league as opposed to the bottom half should be significant.
Regarding My Videos:
I’ve been doing YouTube videos. Actually, I really buried the lede here, I just had all that about the playoffs sort of building up in what I suspect is the little stem bit connecting the bottom of the brain to the spine that it was causing me to twitch uncontrollably, so I had to put it down somewhere. I’ve been doing YouTube videos on my sort-of-new channel. I have one still unlisted, which I’ll show for you here:
and I put up my time-sensitive predictions video today:
Now, the reason why I’ve been holding that first one unlisted is because I was commissioned to make a video for MLS itself, one that they posted on their TikTok earlier today!
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Twitter and Instagram versions should be coming on the official MLS accounts on those sites by the weekend.
Regarding Posts Such As This One:
I am going to be busy this weekend, but sometime very soon, I’m going to launch another Substack specifically for soccer thoughts. I figure that most of my current subscribers don’t care that much about getting my soccer thoughts in their inboxes. However, this is what I have at the moment.