The biggest setback to Real Salt Lake's hopes of repeating as MLS Cup champions may have arrived when MLS released its schedule last week.
MLS handed RSL eight midweek fixtures as part of its slate of 30 league matches, tying the Claret-and-Cobalt atop the list of most frequent midweek combatants with Philadelphia and ensuring it will have to overcome recent history in order to mount a vigorous title defense.
A brief study of the allocation of midweek matches – defined as all games played between Monday and Friday for these purposes – in MLS during the CONCACAF Champions League era (2008-present) reveals clubs have struggled to make a sustained playoff impact when faced with fixture congestion. While the conclusion appears sensible because of the roster restrictions and the lengthy travel facing MLS clubs at home and abroad, history backs up the hypothesis with jarring (although limited) data that concludes RSL may do well even to scrape into the playoffs and exit at the quarterfinal stage.
In addition to casting a shadow on RSL's playoff hopes, the detailed look at the past two years uncovers a few notes and tendencies worth sharing:
The more games a team plays midweek, the less likely it is to make a deep playoff run: Eleven teams, including ties, earned a spot on the top five list of the most midweek matches played in all competitions in 2008 (five clubs) and 2009 (six). Although nearly all of these clubs excelled in the previous campaign, the prior success ultimately contributed to a loaded fixture list and a disappointing playoff run in the following season.
The total playoff yield for those 11 teams: one MLS Cup berth (New York's Cinderella run in 2008), two conference final losses (Chicago and Houston in 2009), four quarterfinal exits and four trips to the golf course.
One exception to the general rule: RSL tied for second last year on the list of teams with the most MLS midweek matches and stormed through the playoffs to win its first MLS Cup. The caveat to the exception: RSL's six MLS midweek matches wouldn't have broached the top five in the all competitions category in either 2008 or 2009.
Flip a coin to determine whether the midweek warriors will make the postseason: During the past two seasons, six out of the combined 12 teams featuring in the top five (and ties) clubs with the most MLS midweek matches have made the playoffs.
Real questions about midweek popularity in Utah: Real Salt Lake's eight midweek matches represent two fewer midweek tilts than the other three direct CONCACAF Champions League group stage invitees combined in 2009 (Columbus – 2 and Houston – 3) and 2010 (Columbus – 5). RSL's popularity isn't a championship perk after six midweek appearances in 2009, but the Claret-and-Cobalt must be wondering why the MLS schedule makers didn't cut them more of a break unless the midweek matches stem from RSL's overwhelming (and wise) reluctance to play on Sundays out of respect for the significant Mormon population in Utah.
No team fits the midweek better than FC Dallas: Although the Hoops haven't made the playoffs since 2007, FCD stands out as the only team to feature in the top five of the MLS midweek scheduling heap for each of the past three seasons.
Location plays a major role in the Hoops' 18 midweek matches over the past three seasons. Dallas' central geographical placement and its access to two airports filled with non-stop flights makes the trip to Frisco an easy stop on the way to a weekend match on the opposite coast or in the middle of the country.
In addition to its geographic advantages, FCD offers a particularly appealing option for ESPN when it schedules its midweek matches. Dallas combines a large footprint (fifth in the nation according to the Nielsen ratings heading into the 2009-10 TV season) with a large Hispanic audience to supply the ESPN Deportes broadcasts. Little wonder then why ESPN vice president John Skipper highlighted FC Dallas as one of the teams he expected ESPN to feature in 2010 during a press availability in early December. One may wonder, however, how handing FCD a pair of ESPN2 appearances counts as featuring the Hoops.
Toronto FC plays midweek matches...just not in MLS: The Reds played in nine MLS midweek matches in the years covered by the survey, lowest in the league. Three reasons contribute to TFC's absence from the midweek calendar: (1) its midweek participation in the Canadian Championship and, in 2009, the CONCACAF Champions League; (2) the travel difficulties presented by its geographic location; and (3) the inability to include its Canadian television viewership in the American television ratings.
Avoiding midweek fixtures doesn't necessarily yield success either: Kansas City and Colorado logged just ten MLS midweek matches (tied for second-lowest in the MLS) over the past three schedules. There are several factors – venue availability questions during the summer in Kansas City and meager national TV appeal among them – for MLS' reluctance to hand the Rapids and the Wizards midweek fixtures, but the scheduling benefits haven't transferred to the league table. The two teams – plus bottom-ranked Toronto FC – have combined for just one playoff appearance between them during the past two seasons.
A few notes about the methodology: This survey covers the schedules released for the past two seasons and the upcoming campaign and coincides with the arrival of the CONCACAF Champions League. The data includes four external competitions: the Canadian Championship, the CONCACAF Champions Cup (2008 only – matches must have occurred after the start of the regular season), the CONCACAF Champions League and SuperLiga. The U.S. Open Cup is omitted because of the rather scattershot nature of its qualifying rounds, the proclivity of teams to field reserve-laden lineups and the need to stop the review somewhere. As stated above, midweek matches include all games played between Monday and Friday.
& – Entered CONCACAF Champions League in the qualifying round
# – Entered CONCACAF Champions League in the group stage
@ – Competed in CONCACAF Champions Cup
^ – SuperLiga participant
Midweek matches played in 2008 – MLS
1. New England – 11 (T-4th place, quarters) – &, ^
T2. Houston – 8 (2nd place, quarters) – #, ^, @
T2. New York – 8 (8th place, final)
T4. D.C. United – 7 (10th place) – #, ^, @
T4. FC Dallas – 7 (11th place)
Midweek matches played in 2008 – MLS + Champions Cup + Champions League + Canadian Championship
1. Houston – 18 (2nd place, quarters) – #, ^, @
T2. D.C. United – 16 (10th place) – #, ^, @
T2. New England – 16 (T-4th place, quarters) – &, ^
4. Chivas USA – 9 (T-4th place, quarters) – &, ^
5. New York – 8 (8th place, final)
Midweek matches played in 2009 – MLS
1. New York – 8 (15th place) – &
T2. Real Salt Lake – 6 (T-8th place, winners)
T2. San Jose – 6 (14th place)
T3. Chicago – 5 (T-5th place, semis) – ^
T3. Chivas USA – 5 (T-5th place, quarters) – ^
T3. D.C. United – 5 (T-8th place) – &
T3. FC Dallas – 5 (T-11th place)
Midweek matches played in 2009 – MLS + Champions League + SuperLiga + Canadian Championship
1. D.C. United – 13 (T-8th place) – &
2. New York – 10 (15th place) – &
3. Houston – 9 (T-2nd place, semis) – #
T4. Chicago – 8 (T-5th place, semis) – ^
T4. Columbus – 8 (1st place, quarters) – #
T4. Toronto FC – 8 (T-11th place) – &
Midweek matches scheduled for 2010 – MLS
T1. Real Salt Lake – 8 – #
T1. Philadelphia – 8
3. Los Angeles – 7 – &
T4. Chicago – 6 – ^
T4. Chivas USA – 6 – ^
T4. FC Dallas – 6
T4. New England – 6 – ^
T4. Seattle – 6 – &
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.
For more on Major League Soccer, visit Goal.com's MLS page.