MLS opportunity lost: Once again, no simultaneous kickoffs for final match day

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Yet another MLS final weekend is about come and go and, again, we can pick up an infuriated pen and mark this one down under “Opportunity Lost.”

The league misses so, so much by not having simultaneous kickoffs on the final weekend of play.

In fact, since Major League Soccer is divided into conferences, the league would stand to register a double-word score on this one. Eastern Conference on Saturday, all games kicking off at the same time. And then Western Conference on Sunday, same deal, all games kicking off at once.

The drama is potentially brilliant. Potentially even game-changing for the league, if managed properly, with exposure maximized.

Soccer fans in this country were just treated to tense and dramatic theater that can unfold thanks to simultaneous kickoffs. The final night of CONCACAF qualifying, with something on all three matches, was sensationally memorable stuff. And that’s with the United States only being peripherally involved!

Look at the games this weekend:

Five games in Round 35 are clashing of Eastern Conference clubs, and every single one will tell something about the playoffs. Foremost, between Montreal, Chicago, New England and Houston, one member of that nervous foursome is not going to make it. Plus, there’s New York and Sporting Kansas City still angling for Supporters Shield and the Eastern regular season championship (not to mention the best shot at hosting MLS Cup.)

That’s drama – and that’s potential exposure Major League Soccer cannot buy!

Things are decided in the West as for who is going to the 2013 playoffs – but potential positioning is all over the place.

And yet, like every year, game times are all over the place, spread over several hours. Sigh.

Why? It mostly comes down to this: small thinking. It’s small thinking for a league whose “Think Big!” time has arrived.

It’s about built-in TV slots. And about concerns of individual clubs that might prefer this start time over that one. There are some other minor concerns, but … yeah, thinking small.

(By the way, flexible TV scheduling would also help, rather than locking in the games 10 months earlier. One of the nationally televised games this weekend is San Jose-Dallas, which is the only match of 10 in Round 35 that will not help decide playoff spots or post-season seeding. Sigh.)

Thinking big would be imagining something like the Premier League finish of two years back, when Manchester City claimed the crown on Sergio Aguero’s historic strike. I mean, watch this thing!

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What about the big drama that we sometimes get with final group play days at a World Cup? Anyone remember 2002 in Asia, when the Americans fell behind to Poland and became so dependent on a result from match playing out simultaneously – there’s that word again – 115 miles away between South Korea and Portugal? (Thanks again, Park Ji-Sung!) That’s the dramatic, unforgettable stuff!

There’s something else quite important to consider here: fairness.

Teams that kick off later than others may benefit from an unfair advantage. With playoffs beginning so quickly after the final kick – the last MLS regular season games ends late Sunday, the first 4th vs. 5th eliminator match is Wednesday, about 68 hours in between – unfair advantages is quite possible.

Specifically, one team may get an extra day of rest (by playing Saturday rather than Sunday). Or, a club may benefit by resting players on that final day because they know something about their playoff fate or positioning based on an earlier Round 35 result. How is that fair?

At some point, marketing concerns need to be put aside and matter of simple fairness need to be paramount.

It was OK for MLS to be deficient in these ways in early years; scheduling was brutally tough as so few clubs had control of their facilities. We are way past the tipping point on that one. And we’re also past the point where teams were losing so much money, things like “simultaneous kickoffs” was just a pricey luxury.

I have been writing about this for almost five years now; it’s time MLS catches up – and time they stopped blowing this wonderful opportunity.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday