As we endure the cold and dark of the off-season, it’s a good time to dream about the warmer days to come and think about watching our hometown club play some soccer. As such, it is an appropriate time to look at the schedule and how it breaks down.
MLS Schedule Format
Fo 2019, Major League Soccer made some changes in how they build the schedule. The league decided that they would prefer to have the MLS Cup earlier than the first week of December that they have been using. It’s a wise move considering that some MLS cities can be quite cold by then (as experienced with the 2017 MLS Cup Final in Toronto). The league also didn’t like how the October FIFA international break broke up the last few weeks of the regular season as many teams are making their push for the playoffs.
To accommodate this, they compressed the regular season by adding more mid-week matches, so now Decision Day will be the first Sunday of October rather than the last Sunday of that month. The playoffs will now start right after the October FIFA international break. The post-season will take a shorter amount of time as well, as they eliminated the home-and-away rounds and replaced them with knockout rounds. This not only shortens the time it will take to get through the playoffs, but it also adds importance to the regular season matches, as teams will want to have as much home field advantage as they can in the postseason.
The regular season is still 34 games, and is still unbalanced as teams only play teams in the opposite conference once. But with the addition of Cincinnati FC as the 24th team, it allows the intra-conference schedule to be balanced. Each team plays all the other teams in their conference twice, home and away.
Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, some teams will have an easier season than others. The Union have the tenth most difficult schedule in the league. With 24 teams, that puts the boys in blue close to the middle. It could be better, but it could be worse too.
The Union start their 2019 season on Saturday March 2 at Talen Energy Stadium against Toronto FC. The boys in blue will be challenged in that first month, with the opening game followed by matches against Sporting KC, MLS Cup champs Atlanta United, and Columbus. If they can win two or three of these, they will be well setup as the season gets into full swing.
Most the Union home matches are at 7:30, but mercifully they scheduled this one for 1:00 PM, as it is likely to be still be quite cold in the Philadelphia region then.
Following that potentially chilly start on March 2, 12 of the remaining 16 home matches will be at 7:30. This is a change from last year where many of the matches started at 7:00. The biggest impact of this will be felt in the midweek matches, as it allows extra time for fans to arrive after a work day.
Two home matches have start times to be determined: Saturday March 23 vs Columbus Crew SC and Saturday July 6 vs Orlando City. Also, that second home match is the first of back-to-back matches against the Lions (the second being at Orlando City Stadium), which should be a good mid-season opportunity to get some points.
Despite the compressed schedule, the Union are only going to have two mid-week games at home: May 1 vs FC Cincinnati (Cincy’s first visit to Chester ever), and May 29 vs Colorado Rapids. There are no Friday home matches, so these will be the only days Union fans will have to rush from work to get to Chester. Of course, these are only MLS matches; it remains to be seen how the new, compressed schedule will affect how the US Open Cup matches are scheduled.
Here’s how the Union home schedule breaks down by day of the week:
- Two Wednesday matches
- Two Sunday matches
- 13 Saturday matches
The road schedule is a little more diverse by day of the week:
- Three Wednesday matches
- Eight Saturday matches
- Six Sunday matches
Only one of those Wednesday night matches are on the West coast: September 25 at San Jose. If the Union aren’t in playoff hunt, there won’t be many people staying up for a weeknight match that starts at 11:00. All the other late night games are on Saturday nights.
The Union will have only two bye weeks, each corresponding with a FIFA international break. The first will be in June, corresponding with the group stage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and the second in the first week of September.
The schedule is mostly balanced as far as home and away matches go. But there are two three-game homestands and two three-game road stretches. The first Union three-game homestand is in late May (all against Western Conference clubs), which is the midst of nice eight match stretch where the boys in blue will play at home of six of them. It will be bad if they don’t take advantage of that because it will be followed another eight game stretch which will have the Union traveling for six of them including a three-game road trip.
That takes us into August where the Union get another three game homestand, which is in a five game stretch in which they’ll be home for four of them.
They need to take care of business in August because they have a brutal end to the regular season, as three of their last four matches are on the road which includes that tough midweek visit to San Jose. Like last season, they’ll face off against New York City FC on Decision Day, but this time they’ll be home.
As far as the broadcast schedule goes, the Union aren’t getting much respect from MLS’s national television outlets. They’ll get one match on Fox Sports 1 (August 4 @ DCU), and nothing scheduled for ESPN or Univision. Most matches will once again be televised locally on PHL 17, with three matches on 6ABC and two on LiveWell network (one of 6ABC’s subchannels). I have mixed feelings about the PHL 17 arrangement. While its good to have games available on free over-the-air TV, I think not having any presence on NBC Sports Philadelphia hurts the club as far being recognized as one the region’s major sports clubs. Just look at Twitter where many Philly fans describe themselves as being a “Four-for-four” fan. To those people, the Union might not as well even exist. And one reason is that they don’t on our main regional sports network.
It will be easier to make the playoffs this year, because MLS expanded the field from six to seven teams per conference. To do this, only the first place team in each conference will get a bye instead of the top two. It’s wishful thinking to imagine that the Union would get that first place bye, but if they can’t finish in the top seven, the season would only be able to be described as a disaster (and would almost certainly end the Jim Curtin era in Philadelphia). But just making the playoffs shouldn’t be the goal. The team needs to shoot for fourth place at a minimum so they can get home field advantage for the first playoff round at least and attempt to score their first ever playoff win.