The big game - MLS Cup 2008 - is Sunday, but the big meeting is Friday and the big draw is set for Saturday.
On Friday, the MLS Board of Governors will vote on many competition and scheduling issues for the 2009 season, and late in the afternoon Commissioner Don Garber will make many of those decisions public. On Saturday is the draw for the final round of Concacaf World Cup 2010 qualifying - the Hexagonal - in Johannesburg, South Africa.
While these are independent events, they are connected, since after playing straight through the FIFA international fixture dates since it began operations in 1996, MLS will factor those dates into its scheduling for 2009.
"We'll be able to announce a number of decisions on the competitive front as relates to our schedule and our qualification decision on international tournaments and what kind of decision we'll be making with international fixture dates, etc.," says Garber.
MAKING A DATE. Which dates will be honored isn't dependent on which games are slotted into the Hexagonal schedule with Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador, and the United States, since those matchups won't be known until Saturday. MLS has many more international player than those who play for the U.S. so the effect can be extensive.
FIFA has alloted 12 international dates for most confederations in 2009: Feb. 11, March 28-April 1, June 6-10, Aug. 12, Sept. 5-9, Oct. 10-14 and Nov. 14-18. The Hexagonal (10 games per team) will start Feb. 11, even though it is a friendly date for most confederations, and conclude Oct. 14. The November dates must be left open because the fourth-place Concacaf team must play off with the fifth-place South American team to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. The top three Concacaf teams qualify automatically.
"It's a case of finding which dates make the most sense, not skipping the week when the U.S. plays Mexico, for example," says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who is in Southern California until Saturday. "There's a misconception about skipping dates that everybody does it all the time. Mexico didn't follow it straight through the last time around, although they did skip a few of the dates."
Scheduling is just one of many multi-layered topics: for which FIFA international dates does MLS suspend play and which does it play through? When and how will SuperLiga be played? Will MLS play a balanced 28-game schedule with each of the 15 teams playing each other home and away, or will it devise a formula to stay at 30 games? When will the season start and when will it end?
"We're not locked into anything," says Garber. "We could play a balanced schedule of 28, or consider staying with 30 and the issues around that, many of them relating to the international fixture dates. A lot of the issues are financial."
CROWDED CALENDAR.There are logistical issues, too, in a calendar year that includes the Confederations Cup (June 14-29), Gold Cup (July 3-23), SuperLiga (mid-summer) and 2008-09 Concacaf Champions League and 2009-10 Concacaf Champions League, which is tentatively scheduled to start in late July or early August with the play-in rounds. To open up more time between the June Hexagonal dates and the Confederations Cup, the U.S. will play a few days earlier than the specified dates.
MLS is more or less bound to whatever dates Concacaf picks for its club competition, so it must find slots to play its SuperLiga tournament against Mexican club teams. In the inaugural edition last summer, New England and Houston reached the final at the expense of Chivas USA, D.C. United and four Mexican teams with the Revs winning the title.
"The challenge with SuperLiga into a very crowded schedule for us and the Mexican teams, which also have issues in this area," says Garber. "Then it's figuring out how to structure it so it maintains the value it had this year from a fan perspective and a television perspective but not having the same type of schedule impact that it had this year, which this year had a whole new tournament starting up in the [Concacaf] Champions League."
Last year, those same four MLS teams also played in the Concacaf Champions League and that procedure won't be repeated. The four 2009-10 MLS representatives are already decided. Columbus (Supporters' Shield winner) and D.C. United (Open Cup winner) are in automatically, and the other two slots are designated for the two MLS Cup finalists. With the Crew also in the final, Houston takes a spot as the team with the next highest point total, and New York, as the other finalist, is also in.
The next four highest point totals besides those four are Chicago, Kansas City, New England, and Chivas USA. MLS could do a lot worse in the SuperLiga.
SUPER SWITCH.Garber says the format is likely to be altered. This year, two teams from each league played in four-team, round-robin groups, with the top two in each group advancing to the knockout round.
"I'd like to see Mexican and MLS teams play only cross-border games and not replicate their league meetings," says Garber. "The top two in each group - the U.S. Division and the Mexican Division if you will - would advance to the semis, with the winner playing in the final."
Thus, only if two MLS teams or two Mexican teams advance to the final would there be an intra-league match. All other games, including the semis, would pair an MLS team with a Mexican club. That would pose travel and scheduling complications, but what doesn't?
SuperLiga lacked a little fizz since most of it fell during preseason for the Mexican teams, who lacked sharpness and fitness and also triggered a few on-field melees. MLS absorbed criticism when the Revs and Dynamo players pooled their shares of the $1 million prize money and split the combined $250,000, rather than adhere to the league-mandated split of $150,000 to the champion and $100,000 to the runner-up.
Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, whose team fared the best amid a heavy schedule of league and international club matches, is among the fans of SuperLiga.
"It's an honor to play in these tournaments, it really is," says Kinnear, who gave his team a week off and resumes training Monday for its last CCL game Wednesday against Luis Angel Firpo. "I love 'em. I like SuperLiga. I know it didn't have real reward, other than money, there's no entry to a global tournament, but I love the viability of it. I think it's created some great games."
CHANGES PENDING?MLS teams playing Mexican rivals with pride and prize money on the line produced some memorable action, and prompted serious discussions of expanding roster sizes to better compete with first-team squads as big as 25 as well as help teams field stronger squads when national team callups do conflict with league games.
Meetings in Chicago regarding the reserve league were held a few months ago and several sources indicate MLS may expand the first-team roster beyond its current limit of 18, reduce the number of developmental players from its current 10, and abandon the reserve league or greatly curtail it.
Other changes have been discussed. Increasing the number of discovery players from six to 10 is one possible change. The tentative date for the discovery window to re-open is Dec. 8