The 2008 MLS season is far from over, yet Commissioner Don Garberhas already begun lobbying for 2009 to be the Year of the Conflict.
Next weekend numerous MLS teams will be again be deprived of players called up to play for their national teams in World Cup qualifiers, and league executives will again jab, duck and parry the inevitable criticisms of teams stripped of important players as the playoff chase intensifies. That's just a warmup for next year.
MLS has yet to determine how it will distribute games in a 15-team alignment, with expansion Seattle set to join. It could re-align into a single table and reduce the number of games to 28, with each team playing each of its rivals home and away. (That would leave the total number of games at 210, as it was this year.) Or MLS could juggle the matchups and retain a 30-game schedule whether or not it re-aligns, but that would require the playing of an additional 15 games.
Garber has all but dismissed notions that MLS will forego play during the five 2009 competitive FIFA windows, which begin in late March and conclude in November. (There are also several midweek dates set aside for friendlies.)
Yet by starting in early April, MLS could play a 28- or even a 30-game schedule, accommodate the U.S. Open Cup and Concacaf Champions League, and still sit out most of the international dates. It would have to play through the Confederations Cup (June 14-29) and Gold Cup (July 3-26), as it has done in the past.
Squeezing SuperLiga into the mix would be difficult, yet the league will encounter far greater criticism for ignoring FIFA dates next year, when 10 qualifiers must be played in less than eight months, than it did this season.
But there are sufficient weekends from April 4 to Oct. 25 -- 27 to be exact -- to play the regular season (given some midweek dates in May and August perhaps), complete four subsequent weekends of playoffs and MLS Cup, and still finish before Thanksgiving, even if it respects the FIFA dates. Starting earlier, maybe in mid-March, would free up more dates, but there really aren't enough teams in temperate cities to make that work.
MLS used a 31-weekend schedule (March 29-Oct. 26) for its regular season this year, so tweaking a bye team into fewer weekends next year won't be easy. But it's not impossible, either.
A tough conflict is the Nov. 14-18, 2009 window, which falls right in the middle of the playoffs, and while the U.S. could well be qualified after eight Hexagonal matches, there's no guarantee that it would be. The league will also have difficulty dealing with an odd number of teams but some clever scheduling can minimize the burden of teams playing twice in the same week and/or a rested team playing one coming off a midweek game. That, too, will be burdensome, yet coaches would much prefer that scenario to missing top players for several qualifiers as well as two official competitions. The fans and broadcast partners would like, it, too. So would the players.
Anything is better than plunging blindly ahead, downgrading league matches for the sake of convenience or, of all things, SuperLiga. MLS can make it work if it wants to, perhaps by steering clear of at least a few FIFA dates, perhaps those in June (6-10) that precede the Confederations Cup, for which head coach Bob Bradley may choose to use most of his European-based players.
On the other hand, Bradley might have to prepare one team for the Confederations Cup and use a different squad for the qualifiers if the turnaround time is too tight.
MLS turned its schedule inside out this year to accommodate SuperLiga games at the expense of the FIFA dates. That backward thinking has to stop; a few MLS teams were sacrificing precious weekend dates to play SuperLiga matches and that can't continue, either. Like the Champions League, be it Concacaf or UEFA, international club games are played midweek. Period.
The 2009 competitive fixture dates are: March 28-April 1; June 6-10; Sept. 5-9; Oct. 10-14; and Nov. 14-18. Let the lobbying begin.