USL Championship announces 2022 season format
The schedulers were absent the day they taught factors in math class
Today the USL Championship revealed the league’s format for the 2022 season, and it’s quite a change from the past two turbulent years, as well as from earlier setups.
The league will be returning to a conference-only alignment, with no divisions within the conferences. Each team will play every conference opponent twice, and a selection of opponents from the other conference, splitting the interconference games equally home and away.
The playoffs will also be different. There will be 7 teams in each conference making the playoffs. That will be one less than this past season. The top seed in each conference will get a bye in the first round of the playoffs, and the playoffs will be reseeded after the first round so the top seed gets to play the lowest remaining seed.
There will be 27 teams this season, down from 31 in 2021. Off to MLS Next Pro are Real Monarchs, Sporting Kansas City II and Tacoma Defiance. The Charlotte Independence self-relegated to USL League One, and Austin Bold and OKC Energy are on hiatus. Expansion franchises for 2022 will be Detroit City and Monterey Bay Union (whose name selection is almost as bad as its head coach selection).
With 27 teams, the two conferences will be unequal, with the East having the extra team. The interconference schedule will be 8 games and Western teams will play the remaining 2 games against select conference opponents established in a manner the league did not reveal. This is somewhat different than the solution MLS used in 2021 for its own 31-team schedule, which had mostly extra intraconference games with limited interconference games.
The conference split is on perfect geographical lines. The westernmost Eastern Conference team will be FC Tulsa, which is just a couple of degrees east of Edinburg, Texas, home of the Rio Grande Valley Toros, who are the easternmost Western Conference team. The extra team is in the Eastern Conference, and that’s probably because Tulsa’s nearest opponent is now Memphis 901.
The best part of this regular season format is that teams will not play against a very limited set of divisional opponents. No more 4-game sets. And that means that fans will get to see far more visiting teams than the past two years. For the Legion in particular, with a big new stadium to fill, that’s extremely good news.
Frankly, that’s about as good as it gets. The most obvious downside is much increased travel. No more than what teams endured before 2020, but for the players this isn’t great for physical reasons and for clubs it’s not great for financial reasons.
The playoff format, unlike the regular season format, is exactly the same as MLS had in 2021. The obvious upside here is that winning the conference and getting the first round bye is now a much bigger deal. But missing that first round is, as the Legion found out this year, is a double-edged sword. Much less so for the top seed of course, but still. The only real downside is that there is 1 less playoff game in each conference.
Could they have done this better? Yes, I think so, and my recommendation would be the same as it was when MLS announced their 2021 format. And I think that format would work even better in the Championship than it would have in MLS.
Math, apparently, is hard. Which is what it comes down to. That, and being wedded to a 2-conference alignment. But what are the factors of 27? Well, they would be 1, 3, 9 and 27. 1 and 27 are out if you don’t want a single-table format. That leaves you with 3 and 9. Obviously, 9 divisions of 3 teams is a non-starter. But 3 divisions (or conferences, or whatever you want to call them) will work rather well. Especially for a 34-game season.
Play each division opponent twice. That’s 16 games. That leaves 18 games. The factors of 18 are 1, 2, 3, 6, 9 and 18. Rather conveniently, there are two other divisions with 9 teams each. If you’re going to expand the travel, why not play each team from the two other divisions once each?
Obviously, 3 divisions would make the playoffs rather trickier (and this is probably why an even number of conferences is preferred). But if you are going to use a system of byes and reseeding it can be handled, maybe even throwing in NFL-style wild cards. Here’s one option: the top 4 teams in each division make the playoffs, plus the best of the three 5th place teams. The 3 division winners get a first round bye, leaving the other ten teams to duke it out, probably on a seeded basis, for the 5 remaining quarterfinal places. Then everything gets reseeded.
Well, those are my thoughts. Feel free to disagree.