If you like your division, you can keep your division. Teams will play, in some cases, 18 games – 75% of their schedule – against three division rivals in 2018/19 (or in one case 87% of their schedule against four division rivals). What teams won’t do, for the first time in the MASL era, is play outside their conference in the regular season. These were the main takeaways when the league unveiled its full schedule earlier today.
“Last year was exciting from the opening day right to the championship game in Monterrey,” said MASL Commissioner Joshua Schaub in a league press release. “This year’s schedule could be even better. With teams being focused on their conference, each regular season game becomes a must-win.”
Teams will play 24 games for the first time, an increase of two games from last year’s 22. The league increased from 16 teams to 17 with the additions of the expansion Mississauga MetroStars and the return of the Dallas Sidekicks. The Orlando SeaWolves moved from Cedar Rapids and Utica City FC relocated from Syracuse. The Sonora Soles suspended operations. The season will begin on November 30 and end on April 14.
“The owners wanted more in-division and in-conference games,” said MASL VP of Development Kevin Milliken, “so each game has more meaning towards playoffs, since they are decided by division standings.”
The MASL, however, has yet to establish a playoff format for this season. It will be on the agenda at this week’s MASL owners meeting in Kansas City.
The five-team South Central Division has the most balanced schedule, with the exception of the St. Louis Ambush, who will play 21 of their 24 games inside their division, and a total of only six opponents. They will visit only five arenas on the road. The SeaWolves have the best balance, with six games against the nearby Florida Tropics and four each against the Kansas City Comets, Milwaukee Wave, and St. Louis.
The Sidekicks and the four Eastern Division teams have maybe the worst mix, with six games against each of their three division-mates.
While certain match-ups are geographical no-brainers (Baltimore/Harrisburg Heat, Orlando/Florida, San Diego Sockers/Ontario Fury) and other traditional rivalries have formed over history (Baltimore/Milwaukee, Kansas City/Milwaukee, Dallas/Monterrey), there is very little basis or interest in six meetings between Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley Barracudas or San Diego and the Turlock Express. Part of that is because Rio Grande Valley and Turlock have done so little to distinguish themselves as franchises, but every game against those teams is one less game against a more intriguing opponent.
No one is going to circle their calendars for one of six meetings against a familiar opponent, but Blast fans might take note of February 22 and March 10 when the Wave and Comets, respectively, make their only visit of the season.
The MASL has eight “legacy” teams that could be branded like the NHL’s Original Six: the Baltimore Blast, Harrisburg Heat, Milwaukee Wave, Kansas City Comets, St. Louis Ambush, Dallas Sidekicks, San Diego Sockers, and Tacoma Stars.
The Sidekicks have only played the Wave and Blast once each in four MASL seasons (including this year). In their fifth MASL season, the Blast have never played Tacoma, Turlock, Rio Grande Valley, Monterrey, or the El Paso Coyotes in the regular season. The Sockers have only dusted off their legendary rivalry with the Blast twice in five seasons, and the last time they met was December 4, 2015. Despite two fierce meetings in the Ron Newman Cup finals, the Blast and Sonora never faced each other in three regular seasons.
Some other quirks include a seven game home-stand for St. Louis February 1 to March 3, and a season-ending six game home-stand for Harrisburg. Orlando plays four games in each of the first three months of the season and then has 10 games on their plate in March, while they also have no home games between January 25 and March 1. The Sockers play Dallas twice, but both games are on the road.
Milliken has had the unenviable task of putting the schedule together for the last 11 years in the MASL and its predecessor, the Professional Arena Soccer League. The schedule is a huge logistical puzzle (read: headache).
“The schedule is done based on available dates in the arenas, trying to create balance especially in division for playoffs, the ability to create as many double headers as possible for teams that have to fly for most of their games, and available airline flight routes,” says Milliken. “There are not a lot of options left to schedule additional opponents, once we have gone through the above criteria.”
In 2011/12 the PASL played an in-conference schedule, but there were only 12 teams in the league that year and they only played a 16-game season with teams facing each other a maximum of four times.
Even last year, though, inter-conference play was rare. Cedar Rapids, for example, played their first 19 games in-conference, before playing Rio Grande Valley and Monterrey (twice) to end the season. Baltimore played played Ontario for the first time in their four years in the MASL together, but played their other 21 games against Eastern Conference opponents. Every team played at least one game outside of their conference.
MASL teams tend to be last at the trough for dates. The league will probably never be able to put out a schedule before the last week in September, because they have to wait for hockey, basketball, lacrosse, concerts, and other events, to get the first crack at dates. One way the MASL is combating that is shifting the start of the season to November 30 (last season began on October 27 and ended March 4, with the championship game being played on March 25), which will likely push the playoffs into May, but it will give teams more time to sell, and teams tend to have weaker sales before January 1 anyway.
With extra games and more teams, however, the MASL needs to find a way to create more intriguing match-ups, especially as it strives for more broadcast and media exposure.