By Paul Kennedy
A New York Daily News report that MLS is seriously considering a switch to a summer-to-spring season -- meaning it will play through part of the winter -- was immediately panned in most circles. But a strong case can be made that MLS must switch.
The case for switching the MLS season from its current spring-to-fall season to summer-to-spring revolves around three central points:
1.Finishing the MLS season, as it is constructed now, with the playoffs in November and December is a mess. If you don't think so, come back and discuss it with me after this fall's playoffs.
MLS will jam four playing dates into 12 days, then take four weeks to get in the final two playing dates. It will take off the weekend of Nov. 16-17 (FIFA fixture date) and the weekend of Nov. 30-Dec. 1 (Thanksgiving). Any serious sports league will want its playoffs to be the highlight of its season. Right now, MLS crawls across the finish line.
A summer-to-spring season will allow MLS to start and finish the season in the best weather and finish the regular season and playoffs without interruption for nine straight weeks instead of starting and finishing in the worst weather with three weekend breaks over the same nine weeks.
Throw in the television card -- a late May finish to the MLS season is a lot more attractive to the networks than an early December finish -- and fixing the playoff schedule is the single strongest argument to make in favor of the switch.
2. As MLS attracts more and more national team-caliber players -- or put another way, as it retains more and more national team-caliber players -- the conflicts with the FIFA calendar will become greater, meaning a schedule that plays through the summer will become unsustainable.
In 2013, the conflicts covered nine weekends in the MLS regular season -- FIFA fixture dates in March, September, October, plus two in June, and the Gold Cup over four weekends in July -- and MLS played through every weekend. Does any serious sports league play any games without all its best players? Of course, not.
Put another way, Seattle Sounders ownerJoe Roth didn't shell out $20+ million to sign Clint Dempsey so he'd be off playing for the national team for nine weeks of the MLS season. (Oops, Dempsey played for the Sounders Sunday night. But that brings up the next point.)
3. As MLS plays a bigger role on the international transfer market, it will want to be able to buy and sell players during the peak season, the summer transfer market -- when everyone else does.
From the selling point of view, MLS will get more money for players it sells in the summer than in the winter when few clubs participate in the market.
If you assume most of the best players move in the summer -- many of them free agents whose contracts expire on June 30 -- MLS's new signings will be available for the entire MLS season if it starts in July. What other serious sports league, as MLS does now, opens its most important trading window in the middle of the season?
Getting back to Dempsey, Roth is paying him in 2013 but the fact is, the national team captain won't be ready to go at 100 percent until 2014. (The only reason Dempsey was playing for the Sounders was he hadn't yet regained his top form to justify a call-up to the national team.)
The same thing happened to David Beckham and Thierry Henry. Their first half-seasons were busts as they jumped on the MLS mid-season treadmill going at full speed. It's a waste of big money and a loss of credibility for the players and the league to bring them in mid-season.
An MLS summer-spring season in 2015-16 would look something like this:
July 11-12: opening weekend (week after Gold Cup final -- and Women's World Cup final. That's right: both are currently placed on the FIFA calendar to be played the same day, July 5, 2015.)
Dec. 6:break for winter (same date as in 2013).
March 5:start of spring season (same date as in 2014).
May 29: end of playoffs (weekend before FIFA summer fixture date).
That's a total of 35 weekend dates, four of which would still have FIFA fixture dates. By comparison, there are 41 weekend dates in 2013, 10 of which have fixture dates (the nine MLS played through plus the Nov. 15-16 weekend it will skip between the first and second legs of the semifinals).
As a starting base to schedule the regular season, MLS will be working with the same number of FIFA fixture-free weekend dates (26) in a summer-to-spring format as it will with the current spring-to-fall format even though there are six fewer weekend dates overall.
The trick with a summer-to-spring schedule -- or the current spring-to-fall schedule for that matter -- free of FIFA fixture weekends is what to do about getting regular-season games played that are no longer be played on the FIFA fixture weekends.
With both formats, there are 26 FIFA fixture-free weekends, which means dates for eight other games must be found unless MLS is going to shrink the schedule -- which isn't going to happen. There are only two options: add more midweek dates and/or extend the season into February.
MLS got away with scheduling only 33 midweek games in 2013 -- an average of less than four per team -- by playing through the FIFA fixture weekends and Gold Cup. It won't be able to do that forever.
It will be argued that finding midweek dates will be harder in a summer-to-spring season because you lose the midweek summer nights when school is out, but the counter to that as MLS grows it becomes less dependent on attracting the youth soccer crowd.
Moving into February will be easier to handle as MLS expands into warm-weather markets like Orlando, Miami and Atlanta. And if MLS must play in February and March, would you rather play those games as the season-openers -- the matches that set the tone for the season -- or to restart the season?