By Ridge Mahoney
Commissioner Don Garber announced over the weekend that MLS is considering shifting its schedule to give its two Concacaf Champions League participants, Los Angeles and Seattle, a break from league play to help their chances in the semifinals against tough Liga MX opposition.
Both teams, along with Houston, sat out league play on the weekend between the first and second legs of the quarterfinals. Seattle and the Galaxy advanced, Houston was eliminated. All three teams returned to MLS play last weekend; each of them conceded crucial late goals and none were able to win.
The semifinal legs will be played April 2-3 and April 9-10, with the Galaxy scheduled to host Montreal and the Sounders at home against Chivas USA on the weekend in between. Garber said MLS has discussed re-scheduling those games.
The league’s stance is admirable, though opposing teams can rightly object to schedule alterations that could work against them, since those games would have to be played later in the season and perhaps at disadvantageous times. Striving for parity on the one hand while giving its top teams a greater chance to succeed at the international club level is a delicate balancing act, as is the problem of accommodating 10 FIFA international dates in a 323-game schedule.
There can’t be any more than nine MLS games in a particular round unless teams double up on games. Nine games were played last weekend and eight will be played this weekend as well, in between the Hexagonal qualifiers Friday against Costa Rica and next Tuesday in Mexico.
Every year Garber says the league will do whatever it can to “lighten” the MLS schedule during those periods, and every year it does well in some regards and poorly in others. There’s no way the load can be evenly spread across the 19-team schedules during a year when many teams will stage international exhibitions and most will also be affected by the Gold Cup, to be played July 7-28.
Late-season games take on greater importance as the playoffs draw closer, yet points are points regardless of when they are accrued. A case can be made that at this early stage of the MLS season that all games are important, since no team is yet eliminated from playoff contention. (ha, ha).
Still, a few carry more allure than others and if nothing else, the absence of numerous top players denudes those games of appeal at the gate and on the TV screen. For a league still dependent on crowds for a significant portion of its revenues and desperately trying to pump up its television ratings, those are important considerations.
Seattle will be without three players when it takes on San Jose, which will be missing defenders Victor Bernardez and Justin Morrow. Sporting Kansas City must do without attacking catalyst Graham Zusi and reigning Defender of the Year Matt Besler when it plays at New England (Jerry Bengtson). Fans of D.C. United and Columbus will tune in to see their teams on NBC Sports Network, but does the absence of several starters detract from the game's quality and thus its appeal to a national audience?
The arguments can be made that players make do without starters all the time because of injuries and suspensions, and games are sometimes rescheduled to accommodate international exhibitions and for other non-competitive reasons, such as television. Some midweek dates free of league games are taken up by U.S. Open Cup games or pending international exhibitions.
Yet a league willing to juggle games on short notice might take a fresh look at how it handles the FIFA dates that are determined years in advance.
How does the scheduling conundrum play itself out during the remainder of the MLS season? Here’s a look:
JUNE 7, 11, 18. Revamping the FIFA calendar produced a concentration of three international dates within a 12-day period, and while the MLS schedule is cut back somewhat, about one-half of the 19 teams will be in action during those periods.
Four games are set for the Saturday following the June 7 (Friday) fixture date, and there’s also a Philly-Columbus midweek match on June 5, a Wednesday. MLS has scheduled only five games prior to the June 18 international date, yet stages four more the day after, which in effect makes for a full nine-game slate. A few teams, such as Portland and Montreal, play on both league dates, while Sporting Kansas City doesn’t play at all.
Cutting back on weekend games forces many of those games to be played midweek, but stacking so many of them on the back end of a busy 12-day stretch doesn’t seem prudent.
SEPT. 5 & 9. Again, the league cuts back its schedule leading up to the first fixture date. Five games will be played on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday leading up to the Friday match day, yet a full slate of nine games is again scheduled for the weekend in between.
OCT. 11 & 15. Another wrinkle is invoked for the final two fixture dates that fall within the MLS regular season. (The final FIFA dates are Nov. 15 and 19.) Starting Friday, Oct. 4, a week before the first fixture date, MLS has scheduled 12 games – nine on the weekend, and three on the previous Wednesday. Not much can be done about the weekend, yet forcing six teams to play midweek is a disadvantage at a crucial period of the season.
This time, the weekend in-between is cut back, with just four games scheduled. Two of them are big rivalries: Portland-Seattle and D.C. United-Philadelphia, yet this is a commendable move if still well short of the ideal.
In a perfect world, MLS wouldn’t stage midweek games prior to a Friday fixture date and since it can’t reasonably be expected to sit out the weekend entirely, could at least cut back significantly on weekend action. This week, it attains the first objective (no midweek games) but fails miserably on the second (a full slate of nine).