Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the league
Not a rumor was stirring, much less any intrigue
When out of my e-mail there arose such a clatter
I sprang to my laptop to see what was the matter
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a shrinking spring season with just nine games to cheer
More rapid than RailHawks its commands they came
As the press release shouted and called teams by name!
“Now Strikers! now, Silverbacks! now, Fury and Eddies!
On, Cosmos! On, Indy! on Scorpions and Rowdies!
For a berth in the Soccer Bowl! To the top of the table!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash ... if you’re able!”
I still support the North American Soccer League’s split regular season format. But, they’re making it really, really hard.
In July, the NASL announced their 2014 regular season would retain the split format adopted for 2013. However, the league shifted its midseason break to coincide with the FIFA World Cup. As a result of this and various other factors, the 2014 spring season would comprise 10 games per team to determine both a berth in and hosting rights for the season-ending Soccer Bowl championship. The 2014 fall campaign, which would begin on July 19 following the conclusion of the World Cup, would be a 20-game season to determine the other Soccer Bowl opponent.
However, when Virginia Cavalry FC announced earlier this month that the expansion side would delay their debut until 2015, that left the league with 10 teams for 2014 instead of 11, and a seeming mathematical quandary. Sticking with the same format not only meant lopping another game off the already truncated spring season schedule but also an inequitable allocation of home matches.
Last week, the NASL announced that’s exactly what it is going to do. The 2014 spring season will begin April 12 and run through June 8, with each of the 10 clubs playing a nine-game schedule to determine the spring champion. Far more insidious, however, is that five teams will play five home games: the New York Cosmos, San Antonio Scorpions, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Indy Eleven and Ottawa Fury FC. The remaining five teams—the Carolina RailHawks, Atlanta Silverbacks, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, FC Edmonton and Minnesota United FC—will play only four home games.
In a sport where home field advantage is renowned and with a schedule of only nine games, half the league playing one more home game than the other half is a patently unfair construction. Not only does it compromise the league’s competitive balance, but it also denies revenue from that lost home event to five presumably cash-strapped lower division soccer clubs. Meanwhile, the other five league members won’t share in the financial sting.
Compounding the inequity is the murky manner in which the spring season haves and have-nots were selected. A league official told Triangle Offense that determining the teams that would host five spring home games came down to venue blackout dates and other “scheduling considerations.”
This was also the reason given to Curt Johnson, president of the Carolina RailHawks. Speaking with Triangle Offense, Johnson says he was not part of any discussions with league officials over how many home games the RailHawks would host during the 2014 spring season. Indeed, Johnson says from April and November of next year, the team has only a single blackout date involving its use of WakeMed Soccer Park.
Would it have interfered with the RailHawks playing a fifth spring season home game?
“Not to my knowledge,” Johnson responded.
Such lack of transparency invites speculation as to why particular teams came to receive an additional home match. San Antonio has its privately-funded stadium to finance, Tampa Bay has the league’s newest deep-pocket owner, and Indy and Ottawa are the league’s two debut expansion franchises. And, of course, there’s the New York Cosmos™. It’s probably no coincidence that the two teams with the largest average attendances by sizable margins in 2013—San Antonio and New York—were among the chosen five. On the other hand, the three clubs owned and represented on the league’s Board of Directors in 2013 by Traffic Sports—Carolina, Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta—will play four spring home games.
In the case of the Carolina RailHawks, Johnson notes that the spring schedule delivers other particular disparities. Carolina is one of only three teams—along with Ottawa and Minnesota United—that will not play at home to open or conclude the spring season. Meanwhile, three teams already rewarded with five home games also get to open and close their spring seasons on home turf: New York, San Antonio and Tampa Bay.
Moreover, only two of Carolina’s five road opponents are located in the eastern time zone. Indeed, the RailHawks are the only team in the league that has to travel to both Edmonton and Ottawa for road matches.
This scheduling triple-whammy has left a sour taste in the mouths of RailHawks officials.
“I’m disappointed. I’m frustrated,” Johnson says. “I don’t think it’s the schedule it could have been for us. I think it’s a very difficult schedule. It puts us behind the eight-ball right from the start compared to the five teams that host five home games.
“At this point, it is what it is,” Johnson continues. “But for people who are analyzing schedules to see who got the most difficult one, I think it’s pretty clear who got the most difficult one.”
That said, Johnson says the team’s focus continues to be winning championships and entertaining their fans.
“This is a distraction,” Johnson says. “This is unfortunate from the RailHawks’ perspective. But it’s not going to define our season.”
While the removal of Virginia Cavalry FC from the 2014 schedule created these immediate scheduling snafus, the original sin was the league’s decision to suspend play for five weeks during the entire World Cup. In contrast, Major League Soccer will take a two-week break from June 12–24, during the initial group stage.
Moreover, the initial decision to reveal the 2014 split season format back in July when there was still an obvious risk for further upheaval prior to formulating the final schedule was a PR misstep. After the Cavalry bowed out, there were other options available to NASL officials, including adding a 10th spring game with opponents determined by rivalry, regional proximity or random draw in order to even out the number of home matches. Or, abandoning the pretense of completing a compressed spring season prior to the World Cup break in order to explore more flexible scheduling options.
Instead, the NASL has chosen a fundamentally flawed setup. And for five of its teams, this season’s salutation goes out as 2013 starts fading from sight:
“Happy Christmas to all, and enjoy your extra plane flight.”