MLS Features: Rivalry matches highlight unbalanced schedule
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There is no getting around it: Major League Soccer does not operate in Europe.
That may seem like common knowledge, but America's top-tier soccer division loosely followed the European model of competition for several years.
Much like the other major professional American leagues, a two-conference system was utilized in MLS. But a balanced schedule to resemble the top European leagues was implemented as well, creating a level playing field in which each team would face every other team twice over the course of the season, once at home and once on the road.
While the format appeared to be ideal, there were a couple of drawbacks preventing the league from improving its product on the pitch.
Travel has been a major burden for all MLS clubs. Multiple cross-country trips throughout the year are bound to take their toll on any team, no matter how deep the roster may be, and the balanced schedule maximized the amount times a club needed to travel from coast to coast.
The format also placed as much importance on a match against an opponent that resides 3,000 miles away to one against a foe that sits next door, so to speak. Was it fair that those results weighted equally in a conference system that divides the league into Eastern and Western counterparts?
MLS took necessary measures to combat these issues, opting to institute an unbalanced schedule for the 2012 season and the foreseeable future. The new format would pit teams of the same conference against one another more frequently, serving to cut back on excessive travel while highlighting the local rivalries - "derbies" for the Euro-nomenclature - that often got lost in shuffle of the balanced schedule.
The decision was not welcomed wholeheartedly by all supporters, but halfway through the season, it's hard to argue with the product on the field.
Some of the most entertaining matches this term have taken place in local derbies.
Atlantic Cup play started with a bang this season as D.C. United claimed a resounding 4-1 victory over Red Bull New York at RFK Stadium on April 22. The Red Bulls answered back on June 24, taking a 3-2 win at Red Bull Arena that was made all the sweeter by a brace from Brandon Barklage, who was cut by United in the offseason.
The majority of the Los Angeles Galaxy's contests this year have had no shortage of talking points. With the club off to a slow start, their Super Clasico match against Chivas USA on May 19 was anticipated as the turning point in the season. But the Goats pulled off a massive shock, earning a 1-0 victory for just their fourth win over their city rivals.
The Galaxy's other derby, the California Clasico against the San Jose Earthquakes, unquestionably has been the pick of the lot this term.
Los Angeles held two-goal leads in both of its matches against San Jose this year only to fall behind by the final whistle and relinquish three points to the 'Quakes.
On May 23, Bruce Arena's men were up two at home before three unanswered goals in the final 14 minutes (scored by Steven Lenhart, Khari Stephenson and Alan Gordon) helped San Jose steal a hard-fought win. It was much of the same a month later when the Galaxy found themselves leading 3-1 just before halftime only to squander the result by the 60-minute mark.
Anything can happen at any given moment in any MLS rivalry match, and it is a trend that has gained a great deal of steam since the switch to an unbalanced schedule. With less travel, players have much more gas in the tank when it matters most: rivalry matches where conference foes play for bragging rights.
A host of rivalry matches are slated for the weekend.
The I-95 rivalry between New York and the Philadelphia Union renews itself on Saturday with an added twist: Sebastien Le Toux, former Union fan-favorite, has joined the Red Bulls and will face his old club for the first time since making the trip up the turnpike.
Real Salt Lake welcomes the Colorado Rapids to Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday for the latest installment of the Rocky Mountain Cup. Colorado is desperate for a win after losing its last four league games, while the Claret and Cobalt are looking to keep the pressure on first-place San Jose with maximum points at home.
And finally, Chivas and Los Angeles square off at The Home Depot Center for another Super Clasico tilt as the Galaxy try to continue their dominance over a Chivas side that is unbeaten in its last four league games.
All of these high-stakes clashes should lead nicely into the 2012 MLS All-Star Game as the league's best players go up against reigning European champions Chelsea on Wednesday.
No matter which sides come out on top over the weekend, the spectators are the true winners.