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The Big Pitcher: Open and Shut Case

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

The third season of this particular iteration of the North American Soccer League kicks off this weekend, and for those of us whose interest is more in the league as an entity than in the fortunes of any particular team, the big story to follow is, naturally, the schedule?

The league announced last fall that they would split their schedule this year, play one season in the spring, another in the fall, and let the winners face off to determine the league champion. Apertura and clausura. Inicial and final. Invierno and verano. A format widely used in Central and South America, and one destined for success even in the hemisphere’s northern latitudes. Right?

Maybe. Truth be told, I’m at a loss; I don’t understand the reasoning behind the switch. The pros thrown out in press releases from the league and its teams sound weak. The change seems to be happening because the apertura/clausura schedule format, like George Malloy’s mountain, is there. 

Is it the weather? Does the modicum of home-field advantage cold weather in late November might provide for teams in Edmonton and Minnesota make up for the league deciding that the comfort of those fans who might want to actually attend their games in October/November was less important than that of fans in San Antonio or Ft. Lauderdale in July?

Saying the break helps the league sync with the international calendar is a nice little jab at MLS, except the only dates on the international calendar that the NASL’s break will free its players for is the Copa America and every other Gold Cup. (Though if any NASL players want to wait til the break to join their national teams for the World Cup, they’ll be able to meet up with the squad in time for the semi-finals).

Is it an attempt at outreach, a way of drawing new fans in? I found arguments from half a decade ago suggesting MLS adopt the A/C model to draw in Latino fans who have grown used to the model watching leagues in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela and especially Mexico, which sounds like if Pepsi decided the best way to gussy up sales would be to start loading their product into red cans and boxes and hoping nobody noticed the difference on the inside.

Of course, sometimes marketing does work that way, be it subtle or painfully obvious. A change to something minor like the packaging can have a big influence on how a product is consumed, but when that does work it typically means there was something wrong with the package in the first place. Which, granted, some think might be the case.

To talk about the structure of the season in American sports is to talk about playoffs. (Say it with me, everyone. There I’m glad we went ahead and got that out.) Win or go home. History will be made. You can’t script October. Peyton’s a choker, etc. For the sake of excitement at the end of the season we discount excellence throughout it. In exchange for seeing the top teams reach a higher level of play at the end of the season, we discount slightly the early and middle portions of it.

That’s the Faustian bargain American sports, MLS included, have made: one part of the season for another. Plenty of soccer fans here think it’s a stupid arrangement for their particular sport, and plenty of others think that first group are stupid for thinking it’s stupid. We have a lot of this sort of argument in American soccer, and I have no more interest in debating single-table vs. playoffs than I do telling you which end to break your eggs on. But this third model that NASL is trying strikes me as a worst of both worlds approach.

NASL teams will play twelve games during their apertura,  There’s not a lot of time for teams to pull away from the pack, but at the same time, if someone falls into an early hole, a comeback will be nigh impossible. And so the best teams will be fighting tooth and nail for a spot in the league’s championship game, while the dregs and the mathematically-eliminated middle-class try to fine-tune themselves for the clausura, trying new players or new tactics with an eye towards winning in the future rather than the present. Which, considering each team plays the others only twice per -ura, could have big effects on what’s going on at the top.  

To be fair, this happens in sports leagues all around the world, but not seven games in, and not twice per year. Some teams will have renewed hope in August when they get their second crack at the championship. Many more will find they’ve been raised back up to 0-0-0 parity only to tumble to the basement again, continuing the cycle.

And the returns from this? A one-off championship, the Soccer Bowl, pitting a team that may have peaked four months ago against one that couldn’t beat them before they stopped caring. Potential for a classic championship, but one that lacks the momentum that builds during the playoffs or the stakes that come attached to something like the most valuable game in the world. 

What am I missing? What are the benefits? Those questions aren’t rhetorical; I really want someone to explain it to me.

What’s that? The Cosmos were only going to have their team ready in August anyway? Ohh. Never mind, then.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, North American Soccer League

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