By Kyle McCarthy
Brad Pursel isn't a familiar name even in the most devout of MLS-worshipping households.
Although he operates in relative anonymity in his role as MLS vice president of club services, Pursel probably wields far more influence than many would suspect because he helms a particularly high-profile project that makes news around this time every year.
Pursel – working in concert with team and television programming executives, MLS president Mark Abbott and other league officials – assembles the MLS regular season schedule.
“It's one of those twisted puzzle things you enjoy putting together,” Pursel said of the effort he has marshaled since 2002 and contributed to since joining MLS in 1997 after a stint as the public relations director with the A-League (now USL First Division). “You take a lot of lumps along the way, but it's part of the process.”
The word process doesn't begin to describe the lengthy and onerous toil of trying to compile a 240-game schedule that satisfies the needs of the 16 member clubs on and off the field, the three national television partners and the league office.
Although the project hums along at varying speeds during the entire calendar year, the schedulemaking process for the upcoming year commences in earnest during the previous summer when MLS executives and team officials determine the competition format for the upcoming season. Philadelphia's arrival as the league's 16th team in 2010 simplified the process considerably for this campaign: a 30-game schedule with each club playing every other side home and away.
The next step involves allocating the home openers. Assigning those dates historically takes place November or December, but MLS pushed up the announcement to September to take advantage of greater venue availability and permit more time to generate buzz for those matches.
Teams get directly involved in the process starting in the fall, typically in November. Each club submits a schedule wishlist for the upcoming season, ranking potential home dates on a priority basis and submitting a handful of blackout dates to avoid hosting matches when its home venue is unavailable.
By the time the final whistle blows to decide the MLS Cup winner in late November and the external tournament participants are determined, Pursel possesses all of the information he needs to set the competition calendar and compile the all-important first draft of the new schedule.
Sketching out the initial schedule offering requires juggling three separate priorities, according to Abbott: maximizing attendance, creating a television schedule to maximize ratings and balancing the schedule from a competitive perspective. The three goals do not always pull in the same direction, a concern that forces Pursel to use his experience to produce the best possible arrangement.
“That's the art of the schedulemaking process,” said Abbott, who also noted the importance of business concerns in laying out the fixtures. “Brad has a familiarity with it after doing it for so many years. He'll balance those things and he also seeks input from other people at the league office. We talk to the technical people when a question arises and we talk with other people about the potential impact (of a date or a change). That's what the job is: trying to balance those priorities.”
Pursel said he uses a combination of computer software generations and manual overrides to produce an initial offering that constitutes much of the final schedule.
“We're getting to the point where we have enough input from the teams and our TV partners that when we assemble those early drafts, they're in pretty good shape,” Pursel said. “When we go through the back and forth with the teams, it's about fine tuning and making some of those harder final decisions.”
Some of the hardest decisions – taking a fortnight off during the group stages of the World Cup, for example – arrive well before the first draft exists. Others – the placement of mid-week matches (35 out of 240 matches or approximately 15 percent of the schedule) and the sequence of long-haul trips – are revealed for the first time to some consternation from the clubs. The mid-week matches, for example, draw considerable scrutiny because they can often lead to fixture congestion and stunted momentum.
The feedback on those contentious issues arrives as the first draft circulates between the MLS office in New York, the respective team offices and the programming executives at each of the three broadcast partners. Both Abbott and Pursel underlined the task of assembling the schedule remains a collaborative process on all fronts, though one that still raises some natural concerns on the team level year after year despite the experienced hands in charge of carving out the calendar.
“We've become better at anticipating what comments might get raised, so we deal with them preemptively,” Abbott said.
Back and forth exchanges address some of the comments and eschew others after some deliberation. Minor tweaks and changes shift a few dates and times around, but the primary framework of the schedule remains consistent with the first draft. The process continues as MLS works towards its target date to release the schedule. Once the end date beckons, the give and take stops and each team has to cope with its assigned slate of games.
“While teams certainly call and advocate their positions and sometimes complain about the schedule assignments they've been given, they are all very respectful of the difficulty of the task,” Abbott said. “At the end of the day, they realize someone has to make a call and that's our role within the league office to make that call.”
Abbott said making those decisions has decreased in difficulty as clubs have entered owner-controlled, soccer-specific facilities. Even with the considerable improvements and the increased flexibility now on offer, venue availability still rates as one of the top hindrances to making the schedule, according to Abbott. Sorting through the additional matches imposed by external competition also makes the list.
Those challenges ensure crafting the schedule remains a fresh task for Pursel from year to year. Although Pursel estimates he spends a third of his year intensively crafting the schedule, there isn't any time to rest and reflect on the accomplishment of releasing the current fixture list. The preparations for 2011, in some way, shape or form, are already underway.
“We keep on marching,” Pursel said.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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