All three competitions in which American soccer teams compete are being altered in some way in 2012. Let's take a look at the changes and see if they get an FRB thumb's up.
U.S. Open Cup
The Cup is being expanded this year. In the past, only 6 of the 16 American teams in Major League Soccer entered the Cup automatically, joining in the round of 16. The other 10 competed in a qualifying tournament for two more round of 16 berths.
This year, all 16 teams will enter the Cup at the round of 32 stage. They will be joined by 16 lower league sides who have survived from 48 early round entrants, including all U.S.-based teams in the next two teams down the pyramid, the N.A.S.L. (making its Open Cup debut) and U.S.L. Pro.
This is definitely a good thing. M.L.S. teams mostly treated the Open Cup qualifiers as a joke, sending out teams made up of scrubs and youngsters in front of three-figure crowds. Having all of the country's elite teams entered should give the Cup a needed boost and increase visibility.
Another, less publicized, change to the Cup is an even better idea. In most cups around the world, home advantage is assigned randomly. But the U.S. Open Cup has been using a sealed bidding process. Yes, incredibly, whichever team offered the most money got the home game, as thecup.us uncovered. Indeed, the three-time defending champion Seattle Sounders have been the home team in 17 of their last 22 matches, dating to when they weren't even an M.L.S. team.
This supershady "buying" of the Cup will mostly be stopped under the new system. Now the federation will set a minimum standard for hosting and as long as both teams meet it, there will be a random draw.
Until the semifinals, when the old silent auction system comes back in force. Bleh.
Concacaf Champions League
In the past, 24 teams entered this competition for teams from North and Central America, including four from M.L.S. Eight advanced directly to the group stage, while the other 16 played two-legged playoffs for the other eight berths. The group stage mimicked the more famous European Champions League, with each team playing six games, and the top two in each group advancing to quarterfinals.
In response to complaints that teams were playing too many games, the Champions League has been streamlined this year. There are still 24 teams, but all will begin in the group stage, eliminating the qualifying round. There will be eight groups of three, so each team will play only four group games. And only the top team in each group will advance. Teams therefore will play just four games to reach the quarterfinals, rather than six to eight.
FRB understands the need to streamline, but finds these changes a little deflating. The group stage feels pretty unsubstantial with groups of only three. In the old format, groups generally had one American and one Mexican team, making for some strong matchups. The seeding this year, though, will assure that the four American and four Mexican teams are in eight different groups. Expect a high percentage of group stage mismatches.
Unchanged is what FRB considers the worst aspect of the Champions League: It extends for 10 months over two calendar years. The current Cup began last July, and the group stage ended in October. The eight teams that remain are now waiting five full months until the quarterfinals this March, and the final won't be held until April. How many of you still remember what teams are in the quarterfinals? The 2012-13 event, despite being streamlined, will be no better, running from July 31 to May 1.
Couldn't we at least get the thing all in one calendar year and dump the absurd five-month break? How about group games in April, May and June, and knockout games in August, September and October? That also would mean the winner only waits two months before participating in the World Club Championships in December instead of seven months.
Major League Soccer league play
M.L.S. had 18 teams last year; as in most leagues around the world, each team played the others home and home, for a 34-game schedule. This year the Montreal Impact is being added. So the teams will play 36 games instead.
And that's the end of this post.
Oh, if only that were true. Nope, instead M.L.S teams will continue to play 34 games, playing the other teams once, or twice, or maybe even three times.
As an example, the team FRB supports, the Philadelphia Union, will play the nine "Western" teams once each. It will play seven other teams three times. And it will play two teams, Montreal and Kansas City, twice each.
There is no excuse for this. Saving travel costs? This is a major professional league, come on! Encouraging rivalries? It's not ice hockey. Eliminating fixture congestion? You only need to play two more games. Philadelphia is playing only three games in April and three in June. Soccer teams can play two games a week.
And worst, it's just inelegant.
Play everyone once at home. Play everyone once away. The world of sports systems and structures is messy and ugly sometimes, but that is a thing of beauty.