The 2021 Major League Rugby season is poised to kickoff with thirteen teams. The league will welcome two new expansion teams in Los Angeles and Dallas. However, the league has also lost the Colorado Raptors as they have withdrawn from the league in an effort to develop American talent (although no one really understands how).
The end result ultimately means that the MLR will still be growing from twelve to thirteen teams for the 2021 season. The schedule and league format are two of the many things George Killebrew must finalize for next year. There are many scheduling and format options for MLR 2021, so I have decided to put forth what I would do if I found myself in Killebrew’s shoes.
Major League Rugby is no stranger to having an uneven number of teams in the league. In the inaugural 2018 season, MLR was a seven-team league. In 2019, the Toronto Arrows and Rugby United New York joined the Original Seven to create a nine-team league.
The abbreviated 2020 season saw the addition of Rugby ATL, Old Glory DC, and, the New England Free Jacks which brought the league to an even number of teams for the first time. Therefore, we can go back and see how the league handled the imbalance in the past. Of course, the 2020 season also saw the introduction of conferences in MLR for the first time; a concept I would like to keep moving forward.
The Season Length
The 2019 season and 2020 season were both slated for 16 games. However, going from an uneven nine teams to an even twelve saw the number of bye weeks drop from three to one. 2019 featured 16 games over the course of 19 weeks, while 2020 would have seen 16 games over the course of 17 weeks. Returning to an uneven number of teams will once again bring back the need for three bye weeks.
Therefore, we will once again see a 16-game schedule played out over 19 weeks. The Summer Test window will continue to mean that it is difficult to push the end of the season back. Therefore, we will start the 2021 season two weeks earlier to accommodate the need for a longer campaign.
The conferences will have to be imbalanced for the 2021 season with a seven-team and a six-team conference. I’m going to put Los Angeles in the Western Conference for obvious geographical reasons. There could be some debate as to whether you put Dallas in the East or the West. I would put Dallas in the Western Conferences for a few reasons.
Dallas will become the third Texan team in MLR joining the Austin Gilgronis and the Houston SaberCats. To me it just makes sense to keep them all in the same conference. First, all three Texan teams can have a natural in-state rivalry with each other. Secondly, keeping them together will cut down on travel costs for those three clubs. Thirdly, if Dallas is in the West it could open up the chance for Killebrew and the MLR to focus their efforts on adding another Eastern team without realigning the conferences.
Locations such as Miami, Philadelphia, Ohio, or Chicago could all be viable options for MLR (provided someone actually has the money and desire to put a team there). The uneven league will create plenty of opportunity for a fourteenth team to come in. For the time being, I would suggest the league operate with a seven team Western conference and a six team Eastern Conference.
Western Conference: Austin Gilgronis, Dallas, Houston SaberCats, Los Angeles, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves, and Utah Warriors
Eastern Conference: Rugby ATL, Old Glory DC, New England Free Jacks, NOLA Gold, Rugby United New York, and Toronto Arrows.
Twelve teams and two conferences made for a nicely balanced schedule in 2020. Each team was slated to play the other five teams in their conference twice, and the six teams in the opposite conference once. Unfortunately, a twelve-team league is the max that a sixteen-game schedule will work for. Furthermore, the summer test window puts a damper on extending the season into the summer.
Unless the MLR is interested in starting the season earlier in the winter, the prospect of playing every other team in the league could be unlikely in a 16-game schedule. If you wanted to extend the season and allow for everyone to play the teams in their conference twice and one game against each team in the opposite conference, you end up with teams playing an unequal amount of games.
Unfortunately, the day of playing every opponent in MLR could be over.
I propose that in 2021, the MLR schedule will see each team play 12 games within their conference and 4 games with opponents in the opposite conference. In the West, this will mean playing everyone in their conference twice (once at home, once away) and playing four opponents from the East (two at home, two away). The East becomes a bit more complicated due to having one less team.
Eastern teams will still play four games against the West (two at home, two away). In their own conference they will play against everyone home and away, but that is only ten games. To balance out the intraconference play with the West, each team in the East will play two opponents 3 times. One of those games will be at home and one on the road.
For example, the Toronto Arrows will play an extra game at home against Rugby United New York and an extra road game against New England Free Jacks. The MLR could market these games as “Rivalry Games” or even a “Derby”. The extra matchups against familiar opponents could go a long way in building up some animosity between two clubs, especially if they end up meeting for a fourth time in the Championship Series.
Ultimately, this means that the teams in the East will not play three of the Western Conference teams, and the West will miss out on two Eastern opponents. However, that is simply the nature of expanding the league. At thirteen teams, MLR may now be too big to squeeze in matches with every opponent in just sixteen games.
To recap, my suggested format is the following:
A 16-game season played out over 19 weeks.
7-team Western Conference featuring:
San Diego Legion
6-team Eastern Conference featuring:
Old Glory DC
New England Free Jacks
Rugby United New York
Each team plays 12 games within their conference, and 4 cross-conference games.
The Western Conference teams will play each other home and away (12 games). They will then play four Eastern Conference teams (2 at home, 2 away) for a total of 16 games (8 home, 8 away).
The Eastern Conference teams will play each other home and away (10 games). They will then play one extra home game against an Eastern Conference opponent, and one extra road game against a different Eastern Conference opponent (12 total intraconference games). They will then play four Western Conference teams (2 at home, 2 away) for a total of 16 games (8 home, 8 away).
Playoffs will remain the same format as 2020.
Ultimately, having a league with an uneven number of teams is nothing new to MLR. However, the league may now be in a position where playing a matchup against every other team will become difficult. My plan is 12 intraconference games and 4 cross conference games.
What do you think? Do you like my plan? If so why? Do you hate it? What would you change? Let me know @BressetteTheJet on Twitter or Instagram and don’t forget to follow for all of your MLR and Toronto Arrows news!