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Fixture Congestion is a real issue in MLS right now

Had the league gone for 12-14 rather than 18 matches after MLS Is Back we may not have had this issue.

September 27, 2020 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United midfielder Marlon Hairston (94) is treated for a head injury during the match against Real Salt Lake at Allianz Field.
September 27, 2020 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United midfielder Marlon Hairston (94) is treated for a head injury during the match against Real Salt Lake at Allianz Field.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

Last night Minnesota United’s match with Chicago Fire was postponed just two hours before kickoff was set to take place in St. Paul. The reported reason was “due to a suspected case of COVID-19 among the Minnesota United team.” This would be the third case within the past three days if true. It was also stated “Further details regarding when this match will be played will be announced at a later date.” That immediately brings the issue of fixture congestion into question.

Since the end of the MLS Is Back Tournament there have been more than a handful of postponed matches. Not including the five matches postponed due to the shooting of Jacob Blake, there have been a total of nine matches postponed a total of ten times. As not Colorado’s scheduled 14th match against Sporting Kansas City was postponed and moved to October 21st. That match was also postponed when the league and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment postponed their next three matches back on Sunday the 12th.

Postponed Colorado Rapids matches

Colorado Rapids are actually involved in 70% of all matches postponed since the end of the MLS Is Back tournament. The other three matches that have been suspended were Sunday’s Orlando City SC vs Columbus Crew SC match scheduled to be played at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, FL. Minnesota United had their Sunday match at FC Dallas postponed and then just two hours before kickoff (officially roughly one hour) had their home fixture against Chicago Fire postponed as well.

As a quick mark, as of October 9th (the newest date we can find full information from) Major League Soccer’s testing and COVID protocols were actually working very well. Only 31 of 53,397 tests came back positive between the end of the MLS Is Back Tournament and October 8th, a 0.05% positivity rate. Which let’s be honest is fantastic but isn’t why we’re here. That reason is fixture congestion.

Major League Soccer decided to schedule a total of 18 more matches in a period spanning roughly 11 12 weeks from August 20th to November 8th. Nashville SC and FC Dallas on the other hand had a total of 21 matches to play in roughly 12 12 weeks. What that translates to is every team playing 1.5 matches per week, or effectively two matches every other week. While for Nashville and Dallas that means playing two matches per week in two out of every three weeks. In a 6 week cycle that comes out to 9 matches for most teams while FCD and NSH would have played 10 at that mathematical rate.

That rate of scheduling matches is actually quite insane in a normal year let alone when there is a poorly controlled pandemic going on in the United States. And now MLS is feeling it’s wrath as we head towards the close of the season. Out of the 12 scheduled matches for Wednesday night (so not including SEAvCOL) there were 83 players out on injury and 7 players listed as questionable between 24 different clubs. The injury rate seems to be slowing down slightly as teams are playing less than two matches per week most weeks but the number is still fairly large. In a direct comparison there were 42 players listed out to injury and 21 listed questionable for Decision Day 2019.

So not only is it a player health/safety issue but now that we are towards the end of the season it is a scheduling nightmare as well. Due to all the postponements the Rapids literally cannot make up any of their scheduled matches. Colorado plays twice per week from their scheduled return on the 24th until Decision Day on November 8th. Unless the league decides to make the Rapids play 3-4 matches per week the rest of the season when they resume then five of those matches aren’t happening.

As for Minnesota and Orlando City they could technically reschedule their missing matches. Both Orlando City and Columbus, as well as Minnesota and Chicago have both October 21st and November 4th as off dates. So both dates could be used to play a rescheduled fixture between the sides, which would get Orlando and Columbus back up to 23 matches. As for the Minnesota/Dallas match there is only one way it could be rescheduled. MLS would have to move the Houston/MNUFC match to the 21st and have MNUFC and FC Dallas play this weekend instead, which in reality probably isn’t happening.

This brings us now to where we stand heading into the playoffs. With 10 teams in the East and 8 in the West who now makes the playoffs and how are those spots decided? As noted above MLS will use the points per game (PPG or points/game) calculation to determine the playoff spots. The highest level I know of that PPG is used to calculate playoff spots is the 4th tier NPSL. That league uses it because not all teams play the same number of games. Rather they all play a single or double round robin in their Conference which can range from 6 to 16 games per season counting in the standings. Since the playoffs are done on a regional basis the PPG format is used to determine seeds for the regional playoffs.

And as much as I think it would harm the MLS standings and change things, those changes are actually at a minimal. In the Eastern Conference you would see Chicago Fire jump to 9th, Montreal Impact drop from 9th to 10th and Atlanta United drop out of the playoffs going from 10th to 11th. The West would see more changes due to how many matches Colorado will miss. As of tonight FC Dallas would go up to 4th place, the Rapids would jump from 10th to 5th, LAFC would fall from 4th to 6th. MNUFC, San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Real Salt Lake would all drop one position. Those being 6th to 7th (Loons), 7th to 8th (‘Quakes), 8th to 9th (Whitecaps), and 9th to 10th (RSL). Only Vancouver would be bumped completely out of the playoffs.

At the end of the day fixture congestion could have been completely avoided by just honestly scheduling less matches. I would have loved to see Nashville SC left in the West and MLS just schedule a 12-13 week, 12 match, single round robin inside the conference to end the season. Is a 17 match season really an MLS season I would’ve liked to see? Honestly no, but a 34 match schedule wasn’t feasible. And scheduling 18 matches just for the sake of it when most teams have no fans is just a dumb idea. I would’ve taken a 17 match season with plenty of makeup dates in case of COVID any day over the cramped, ultra compact, and player burnout format they gave us. Because at the end of the day we want to keep these players healthy, both from COVID and from injuries.