The era of social distancing has been upon us for a while now, and at least in North America doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. This has of course resulted in every major and minor professional sport suspending operations. But those sports are starting to or already have come back. And this has not only created buzz and excitement about sports returning (though I still don’t think it’s time on this continent) but also new ways these leagues have setup the start, finish, or resuming of play.
Major League Baseball is using the easiest and honestly most bland formula, playing a shortened season in their home stadiums with no crowds. Which has already caused issues as the Miami Marlins have had a massive outbreak of COVID-19. The WNBA is playing their entire 2020 season in Orlando at IMG Academy. The NBA is also in the Orlando area playing at the ESPN Wide World of Sports for their qualifiers and playoffs. The National Hockey League is doing something unique with it’s playoffs and TV studio style setup.
Major League Soccer on the other hand went a different route than their European soccer and other North American sports counterparts. MLS of course resumed with the MLS Is Back Tournament, featuring a group stage plus knockout afterwards with the prize being a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League. It’s been a unique look with the graphics and unique format. And here’s my thought; do something like this every season.
I won’t define time of year but lets say it’s either done mid-season during a break or as part of the preseason. There’s a few different ways we can do this, we can either include the group stage or disregard it and just do a knockout tournament, and I’ll cover both of those options here.
First we need to set the number of teams and I will set it at 32. Why 32? Well MLS is consistently growing and will be adding Austin FC in 2021 to have 27 teams, then Charlotte FC in 2022 to go to 28. Sacramento Republic and St. Louis will be added in 2023 to round out the league at 30 teams. To round out to the total of 32, invite teams from the USL Championship and USL League One and guarantee the winners a spot in the tournament.
Group Stage + Knockout Option:
I’ll start out with the Group Stage and Knockout option. This one would absolutely have to be done as all or part of the preseason. The 32 teams are divided into 8 groups of 4 and play a round robin, top two advance to the Knockout stage. Each team would be guaranteed three matches with the possibility to play as many as seven. This wouldn’t be out of the ordinary as Minnesota United for example has played 5 (2017), 6 (2018 & 20), or 7 (2019) preseason matches each year since joining MLS.
This would be a unique and fun way to open the season and you could incorporate current preseason tournaments (Carolina Challenge Cup for example) as parts of the Group Stage. And it would make the preseason meaningful with a reward (that I’ll touch on later) rather than just some warmup games for the teams.
Knockout Only Option:
This style could be played nearly any time of the season and would give a nice break from regular season play, where currently 14/26 teams (and I’m expecting that number to rise with expansion). Randomly draw all 32 teams together and have the lower placed team from the previous season or lower division team host each match. It would be fairly standard and similar to the US Open Cup except all teams would enter at the same time, like Germany’s DFB-Pokal. Same reward applies as before (which you’ll see next)
Why and Whats the Reward?:
Many leagues have multiple competitions over the course of the season, pretty much every country has at least one cup tournament (and then you have England with teams playing in as many as seven competitions at once), so why not add a second one for MLS? My reasoning actually doesn’t come from soccer rather the old VFL/AFL Night Series and the NAB Cup the Australian Football League used to hold.
The reward? A spot in the CONCACAF Champions League regardless of the winners country of origin. I have to make that clear as currently the 3 slots allocated to MLS are given to the MLS Cup Winner, MLS Supporters Shield Winner, and the Conference Winner that did not win the Supporters Shield provided the team is from the US and not Canada. Currently the only was the 3 Canadian clubs can qualify is by winning the Canadian Championship.
Major League Soccer changed that with the MLS Is Back Tournament. The winner, regardless of country, will pick up a spot in the CCL for 2021. Since the US is already guaranteed 3 spots in the CCL why not open this last one up. A preseason series with a CCL spot on the line or maybe a once a month Wednesday night knockout cup would be fun to watch with a great prize at the end. And then hey maybe more fans will start to care about the CCL and Lamar Hunt US Open Cup as well.