USL will hold its annual summer meetings on Thursday, July 28 in conjunction with the MLS All-Star game in San Jose. The convocation of team officials and USL executives provides a forum for assorted league topics to be presented and discussed in a formal setting. A USL news release lists league expansion, 2017 competition structure, and future media strategy among the subjects to be considered.
The USL Off-Field Subcommittee, one of four Technical Subcommittees created within the Competition Committee in 2016, has made recommendations regarding the competition format for next season. Those recommendations will be presented to team owners and representatives in a proposal at the midseason meetings in a couple of days.
The proposal outlines suggestions for season length, conference alignment, schedule structure, and playoff format. Its contents, along with editorial observations, are presented here for your contemplation.
A 30-week regular season has been proposed. The season would start on March 24, with all teams except one from each conference participating in the opening weekend. The season would end on October 15.
Each team would play 32 games during the season.
The proposed schedule format for 2017 compares favorably to that for the current season, which has the teams playing 30 matches over the 27 weeks from March 25 to September 25. Although two games have been added to the schedule, the calendar has expanded by three weeks.
An argument can be made that a longer schedule will increase overlap between the USL season and other major sports. This would only be problematic, though, in a handful of markets. The league has found a way to provide more soccer without returning to the brutal schedules of the recent past in which teams played with insufficient rest between games. This is a net positive.
Conference Alignment & Schedule Structure
As the USL continues to expand and fulfill its manifest destiny, increased regionalization will come. It does not appear, however, that it will come in 2017. If the proposal is adopted, a two-conference system will be retained for at least another year. Fans clamoring for the creation of a Central Conference might have to be patient.
Balance is the overarching theme of this portion of the proposal, beginning with conference alignment. Each conference would be comprised of 15 teams, increasing the total number of competing teams to 30 in 2017.
The proposed structure of the schedule is also as balanced as possible in light of its length and conference alignment. Each team would play 16 games at home and another 16 on the road. A home and away series against all other conference foes would compose 28 of the 32 matches. The remaining four matches would be against regional opponents. No team would face a single opponent more than three times, which would even out the imbalance present in the 2016 Western Conference schedule.
Though not explicitly stated, the proposal is a harbinger of another dormant season for the Austin Aztex, which suspended operations in 2016 to get its house in order. Thirty teams is one more than currently compete in the league. The much-hyped inclusion of Reno in the 2017 schedule would achieve the total of 30 teams, and would leave no room for Austin. Perhaps 2018 will bring better news for that market.
The addition of Reno, coupled with a 30-team limit, would also necessitate one of the current Western Conference teams moves to the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference is the more logical choice for Reno, but that conference already has 15 teams. The Eastern Conference, currently at 14 teams, would have an open spot to accommodate a transfer. St Louis FC, which moved from East to West in 2016, is a likely candidate to return to the East.
If 30 is indeed the final tally of teams in 2017, it also puts to rest any additional expansion rumors for next season. Other teams will undoubtedly join Nashville in the 2018 expansion class, but that news will be the subject of a different article.
From what can be gleaned from the proposal, the playoff format is not expected to change in 2017. Eight teams from each conference would qualify for the single-elimination, bracket-style postseason tournament. The first round of the playoffs would pit seed 1 vs seed 8, seed 2 vs seed 7, seed 3 vs seed 6, and seed 4 vs seed 5. Reseeding would not occur in subsequent rounds.
The USL Championship Match would be played on November 11, pitting the Eastern Conference champion against the Western Conference champion.
More than half of the teams competing in the USL would again qualify for the playoffs. At least the proposal does not call for increase in that ratio. Let us be satisfied to call this portion of the plan a push.
The proposal is what it is, a proposition offered for consideration. Team owners could modify or reject it outright. Late changes to league composition are also not out of the question. It would be difficult for the USL to disregard the interest of the right ownership group in the right market. Any number of unforeseen circumstances to reset the plan altogether.
When considered in its totality, though, the current proposal should be more than satisfactory to USL owners and fans. It provides more games played by more teams with a more balanced structure. The league would benefit from adopting this proposal, or one very much like it.