Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer

While most of the attention around Major League Soccer these days is on this weekend’s player combine and next Thursday’s SuperDraft, I can’t help but think about another news worthy issue that has apparently gone forgotten. Back in Toronto during the hour leading up to the kickoff of MLS Cup, Commissioner Don Garber regaled the collective media with his annual address on all things related to the league. He dropped the bombshell that the 2011 playoffs would expand to 10 teams and no longer could two opponents from one conference contend for the opposite conference’s championship. He also announced that the league would play a balanced schedule among its 18 teams, but that nothing had been decided for future seasons.

The one bit of information missing in the address that related to all those above items was the question of conference assignment for the two newest teams to join MLS — the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps. When Garber was questioned on the subject, he hinted that both teams would join the Western Conference, with one current West team moving to the Eastern Conference to balance the number of teams at nine apiece. That mystery team that needs to order the proverbial Mayflower trucks for a metaphysical move towards the Atlantic seaboard would be determined at a later time.

For the folks out there that want MLS to change all its policies to match that of the big European leagues, this same issue of conference realignment must seem like a pointless exercise. After all, MLS will surely expand to 20 teams and move to a more familiar single-table setup, right? While not saying so with such exact words, the message from Garber was that conferences in MLS were here to stay for the immediate future. In fact, he outlined a vision where the league could potentially expand beyond 20 teams and move to an unbalanced schedule, moves that would certainly kill off any notion that a single table could work for MLS.

After digesting all that information, and then digesting a wonderful meal in the Toronto press box, I turned to a couple of my colleagues to discuss the fact that one of the Western Conference teams was no longer going to have that label and which one made the most sense for the 2011 season and beyond. I say that because I think any move needs to be “permanent” in the sense that this can’t be a case of moving them this season to balance things out, then bringing them back to the West when the next round of  eastern located expansion teams — the Montreal Impact and NY Cosmos — join the party in subsequent years. After all, we already saw Sporting KC, nee the Wizards, make the Lewis & Clark counter-commute in time for the 2005 season, and it wouldn’t be fair to turn them back.

Throwing a monkey wrench into the decision process is the other tidbit offered up by Garber, that MLS wants to continue developing and promoting local and established rivalries as well as have the structure in place to welcome new rivals as expansion teams join the league. With the eventual move to an unbalanced schedule — its coming folks, stop burying your head in the sand on this one — interconference match-ups may dwindle to a single game each season. Those days of four-game California Clasicos for the Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes are slowing fading away in the rear view mirror.

Garber has made it clear that he feels the conference set-up is the best policy for MLS now and for future seasons. It lends itself to a convenient playoff set-up while also giving an additional championship for teams to play for (aren’t you all glad the conference championship trophies currently on offer have improved from just a few seasons ago? Seriously, do an image search on the old trophies and have a good laugh at how insignificant they use to look). The model that MLS is following in its league set-up is closer to the NFL than the EPL. Garber had his beginnings as an executive in the NFL, and has certainly seen that structure grow into an incredible sports business. As long as MLS charts a path for success in America based on our current sports leagues — a navigational course that I fully agree with — conferences, and maybe one day even divisions, will remain a reality.

Okay, having laid all that out there, I go back to that original question that was shared among my small group of frozen cohorts huddled around a radiant heater (that produced no heat and was not radiant) in the upper reaches of BMO Field in Toronto last November. Conveniently enough, all we had to do was look down on the field at the teams warming up for the Cup final for two potential conference relocation candidates — the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas. As long as MLS was going to move forward with two conferences named Eastern and Western, any team currently in the geographical middle third of the country (okay, “continent” for you Canadians) was fair game for an identity change. So, along with the MLS Cup finalists, throw the Chicago Fire, Real Salt Lake, the Houston Dynamo, and those vagabonds from KC into the mix for consideration, and let’s distill two of the ideas that were thrown around on that chilly Sunday evening on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge one idea that so cleverly came from an obvious hockey aficionado in attendance that night — instead of Eastern and Western designates, why not give the conferences proper names like in the old days of the NHL. We could go with the “Don Garber” Conference and the “Sunil Gulati” Conference for instance. Or perhaps honor some prior MLS stars and name them the “Carlos Valderrama” and “Taylor Twellman” Conferences. However, I don’t see that working out — look no further than all the blow-back the Big 10 is receiving for going with “Legends” and “Leaders” — so let’s stick with the assumption that Eastern and Western are here to stay.

As much as I’ve thought about this, and perhaps a reason that MLS has yet to make an announcement as to their official plans for realignment, I don’t see any way around the fact that with two natural western teams entering the league through expansion this season, and two potential eastern located teams entering the league in 2012 and 2013, one current club is destined to do a conference shuffle over the next couple of years to balance things out. The logical choice in that scenario is for the reigning Eastern Conference champions — the Colorado Rapids — to legitimize their ridiculed conference crown with a two year stay among the eastern teams. After 2012, they can return to the West in the new 20 team MLS and restore the logical separation of teams. Perhaps soccer-loving grammar school students across the nation will continue to be geographically confused for the next two school years, but maybe their attentive and caring parents can step in and help sort out the mess MLS has bestowed upon their children’s education.

Because this proposal jerks around the current MLS Cup Champions, it may lend fodder to soccer haters out there to bash the league in the mainstream press for its silly policies. I admit, it looks a bit more Arena Football League and not National Football League to make such a radical decision for your league title winner. Furthermore, Colorado is further west than either of the Texas teams — shouldn’t one of the Dynamo and FC Dallas be sent packing? This very question led me down a different path for geographical harmony in MLS for this upcoming season. Rather then split up the Lone Star state rivalry, move both teams to the Eastern Conference, and return Kansas City to the West.

You’re probably banging your head against your keyboard right about now — shuffle three teams around instead of just one? — but hear me out on this idea. Garber repeatedly stated that he feels for MLS to be successful long-term, strong rivalries need to be cultivated between and among teams in the league that are in close proximity to allow for large constituents of traveling supporters. I don’t fully subscribe to that idea, but I do take that into consideration with my proposal. With Houston and Dallas moving to the Eastern Conference for the next two years, their young but growing rivalry can continue to blossom uninterrupted, and stay intact when they move back West when the league probably changes to an unbalanced schedule in 2013.

Sporting KC — winners of the MLS Championship in 2000 as a Western Conference representative (there were actually three conferences that season, but let’s not go near that third-rail bit of history) — succumb to being the most centrally located MLS team and take two steps to the left for 2011. Without a strong rival throughout their MLS tenure, even though they are one of the 10 MLS originals still in existence, SKC can most weather the conference shuffle without losing too much in the way of tradition. Perhaps it is not fair to treat the former Wizards as the league’s ugly step child, but the fact is that Kansas City just does not have the rivalry pedigree to trump such a conference move at this time.

I expect that MLS will make their announcement of conference realignment in the days leading up to the SuperDraft next Thursday. The league will have the media’s attention and a television platform that will allow Garber the opportunity to address this issue. I, for one, will be very interested in seeing how MLS navigates through this quagmire, and what explanations they give for their ultimate decision. The realities of realignment may be a big problem for MLS, but they stem from growth issues. Overall, this is a good problem for Garber and MLS to have.

Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.
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