Major League Soccer made an – excuse the pun – major announcement on Monday, allocating Inter Miami CF to the Eastern Conference while placing Nashville SC in the Western Conference.
This puts the 26-team league at 13 teams in each conference – and MLS could have sent the Chicago Fire to the Western Conference instead of Nashville – but it also brings up an interesting scheduling change. With so many teams and still only 34 regular season match days, for the first time in MLS history, every team isn’t guaranteed at least one game against each opponent in the league.
It could see an end to the fan-led Supporters Shield as we know it. Although it was artificially weighted if a conference has multiple horrible teams – see the Eastern Conference this year, even though LAFC won the Supporters Shield by a mile – the Supporters Shield winner could realistically say it was the best out of the whole league, and had to play everyone in the league on the schedule.
Starting in 2020, teams will play each of their conference opponents twice, home and away, leading to 24 games. The final 10 games will be against the other conference, likely with five home and five away. Now, a team like Atlanta United can beat up on expansion sides like Inter Miami and other struggling teams such as Cincinnati FC and the Chicago Fire, without potentially having to play LAFC.
The schedule, which is pretty uniform right now, will get a bit messy in 2021 with only one club – Austin FC – entering. Then, in 2022, Sacramento Republic and Saint Louis FC join, keeping it an odd number (29) of teams in the league.
With MLS’ remarkable expansion over the past decade, it was only a matter of time before the league became too big for a true Supporters Shield race, but the main worry will be making sure the league has enough home-grown talent to sustain adding 4 teams from now through 2022. That’s around 120 new spots for players to fill, and even with the lax foreign limits and opportunities for dual nationals or those with U.S. Green Cards, it will be MLS’ greatest challenge to keep raising the level of the league on a yearly basis, as well as grow young American stars.