On Wednesday, the USL revealed its conference alignment and basic formats for the 2016 regular season and playoffs. Only a few adjustments have been applied to the layout employed last season. Many of the changes were anticipated, and those that were unexpected were not a shocking departure from last season’s format.
The system of two conferences has been retained. Saint Louis FC has jumped from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference for the upcoming season. The six expansion clubs have been divided equally between the conferences. Bethlehem Steel FC, FC Cincinnati, and Orlando City B have joined the Eastern Conference. Rio Grande Valley FC, Swope Park Rangers, and San Antonio have enlisted in the Western Conference.
The result is a slightly unbalanced conference alignment that bears little resemblance to your older brother’s USL. The east comprises 14 teams, while 15 teams compose the west. The USL has come a long way since 2011, when the league map closely resembled the United States prior to the Louisiana Purchase.
The regular season will consist of 30 matches per team, played over a 27 week span from March 25 to September 25. This is two more matches than were contested by each team in 2015. The starting and ending dates closely coincide to those from last season.
Although the schedule will not be released until January 26, it is safe to assume that most teams will actually compete in a regular season that is more compressed than 27 weeks. It is not unusual for the USL to stagger each team’s opening date. Consequently, teams will be faced with playing multiple matches per week at some point in the season. The question is whether or not teams will have to play multiple matches over the course of two or three days, a practice that has been criticized in the past.
It might also be safe to assume that each team will play a home-and-away series against each of the other teams in its conference. This will leave each Western Conference team with two regular season matches to play against geographic rivals (which also assumes that idea will be carried over from 2015). Eastern Conference teams will have four extra games to compete against those rivals. This does not leave a lot of room for inter-conference contests, but StP is sure the USL will find a way to pit Saint Louis against Louisville City FC at least once.
The top eight teams from each conference will advance to the playoffs, meaning more than half of the field will qualify for the postseason. In 2015, 12 of 24 teams reached the playoffs. It is not a big departure from previous practice, but by allowing so many teams into the tournament, some meaning is stripped from the regular season. On the other hand, the race to the playoffs will likely extend deep into season, keeping multiple fan bases engaged for a long while.
The bottom line is that there are not many complaints that can be levied against the conference alignment and season formats. The USL largely adhered to a strategy that saw success last year. Let us hope that we are as satisfied on January 26.