The task of scheduling 435 matches in the 185 days from March 25 to September 25 is complete. The USL revealed its 2016 regular season schedule on Wednesday to much fanfare. While there is much to be applauded and scrutinized, one aspect of the slate stands out above all others. It lacks balance in terms of the number of times teams face one another.
When the conference alignments were announced, StP postulated the USL would schedule a home-and-away series between each team within a conference. Given a 30-match regular season, this would leave four extra matches for regional rivalry games for each team in the Eastern Conference. It would allow for two such rivalry matches for teams in the Western Conference, which is composed of one more team than the East. Such a format would provide the most balanced schedule.
The league adhered to the proposed format in the Eastern Conference, but strayed far from the logical path in the Western Conference. In the wild west, some clubs will face each other four times, while others will see each other only once. Saint Louis FC, which moved to the west for this season, will contest home-and-away series against inter-conference foes Louisville City FC and FC Cincinnati.Distinct regions emerge in the Eastern Conference when the matches scheduled beyond the home-and-away series are considered. The northeast region is comprised of seven teams: FC Montreal, Toronto FC II, Rochester Rhinos, Bethlehem Steel FC, Harrisburg City Islanders, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and New York Red Bulls II. Five teams make up the southeast region: Richmond Kickers, Charlotte Independence, Wilmington Hammerheads FC, Charleston Battery, and Orlando City B. FC Cincinnati and Louisville City FC are left dangling on their own at the western edge of the USL Eastern Conference.
The west is more complicated with the variable number of times each team faces the others, but a similar pattern develops of one examines the number of times teams compete against one another more than twice. A far western region is made up of nine teams: Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2, Seattle Sounders FC 2, Portland Timbers 2, Real Monarchs SLC, Sacramento Republic FC, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, Orange County Blues FC, LA Galaxy II, and Arizona United SC. A smaller central region contains only six teams: Saint Louis FC, Swope Park Rangers KC, OKC Energy FC, Tulsa Roughnecks FC, San Antonio, and Rio Grande Valley FC.Saint Louis FC is a particular oddball in the Western Conference. It has the fewest number of opponents (3) to be faced more than twice, and it has the most number of opponents (8) that it will meet only once. Do not forget it is the single western team with inter-conference games on the schedule.
A balanced schedule is important because it helps to add legitimacy to the regular season as mechanism through which entrants into the post-season are determined. The more balanced a schedule is, the more equitable is each team’s path to the playoffs. It would be shameful if a strong team were kept from the playoffs because a weaker team earned more points via an easier schedule.
An unbalanced schedule, though, is also important in USL. Enhanced emphasis on competition between teams in close proximity serves a dual purpose. It reduces travel costs for teams in America’s third division, many of which can still be presumed to be struggling to survive. It also has the potential to generate regional rivalries and spur traveling support.
Even with these points taken into account, the USL could have done a better job of balancing the schedule. There must have been some rationale for the manner in which the Western Conference schedule was assembled, but it has the appearance of being whimsically strewn together. The sooner the USL moves to three or four smaller conferences or divisions, the better.