By Paul Kennedy
MLS released its 2014 regular season Monday. That's six weeks before it was released the previous two years.
If a league's ability to get its schedule in order is an indication of its maturity, MLS has made lots of progress. If was only three years ago that the schedule wasn't released until February, the consequence of protracted television negotiations between MLS and Fox.
Here are a few other takeaways from 2014 MLS schedule release:
MLS will begin a week later than it did in 2013, but the start of the season will again be very hectic.
The Wednesday before the March 8 openers is the lone FIFA fixture date before teams will assemble for World Cup preparations in May.
Three teams -- the LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City -- will have midweek games in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals between the first and second and second and third weeks of the season. The Quakes are off the second weekend, but the Galaxy and Sporting KC have MLS games. (Curiously, two other MLS teams are off -- Real Salt Lake and Columbus -- in the eight-game Week 2 weekend.)
MLS will take two weeks off during the World Cup as it did in 2010 but MLS players on World Cup teams will be unavailable for four weeks, longer if their team makes it to the quarterfinals.
MLS had four players on the 2010 U.S. World Cup team, but as many as eight or nine players could be on the 2014 U.S. team. A half dozen other players could be on Costa Rica and Honduras, which will also be in the World Cup.
Players will likely report for World Cup duty after the games on May 17-18 -- the final day of the European club season -- but there will be three more weekends of MLS play before it breaks. MLS weekend play resumes June 27-29, only a day after the end of group play and the same weekend as the round of 16 at the World Cup, so MLS players will likely be unavailable that weekend, whether or not they're playing in the knockout phase.
MLS will start a week later than in 2013 and take two weeks off for the World Cup by only adding six midweek games.
It played through the four FIFA fixture dates during the 2013 regular season because of World Cup qualifying -- double dates in March, September and October and the triple date in June -- but it didn't play full slate of games -- nine games -- every time.
2014: Midweek games (40)
2013: Midweek games (34)
*3 July 4 games.
NBCSN will air a game every Friday night beginning on June 27 and continuing through the end of the regular season.
The action begins with Portland-Sporting KC the first Friday back after the World Cup break. NBCSN carried games on some but not all Friday nights late in the 2013 regular season, and the viewership figures were some of the best of the year.
ESPN will carry 20 games on ESPN and ESPN2, NBC Sports Group will air 38 games in total on NBCSN and three on NBC, while Univision will carry 28 games on UniMas or Univision Deportes Network.
National coverage will begin opening day with the Seattle Sounders hosting Sporting Kansas City on NBCSN. It will be one 13 Sounders' games on English-language national TV.
Monday's release does not address the playoff schedule -- the thorniest issue MLS schedule-makers face.
All the same issues will apply in 2014: The regular season ends Oct. 26, and MLS will have six weekends to get in six dates if it wants to end no later than Dec. 7 but will face conflicts on two weekends -- FIFA fixture weekend on Nov. 15-16 and Thanksgiving weekend on Nov. 29-30.
(Finishing the weekend of Dec. 14 puts MLS in conflict with the 2014 Club World Cup in Morocco. MLS has never faced the problem before, but it would be a good problem to have: It won't be able to go past Dec. 7 if one of its teams wins the Concacaf Champions League.)
Just one call-up to a key player (Robbie Keane?) could throw a monkey wrench into the easiest solution: play through to the Nov. 15-16 weekend.
The alternative would be to eliminate the play-in game (added in 2011) or second leg of the conference final (added in 2012) or return MLS Cup to a neutral site (not likely after the atmosphere everyone will witness in two weeks in Kansas City).
But that still leaves the issue of the second two-week break, instituted in 2012 when MLS moved MLS Cup to the highest remaining seed. The two-week break was added to give everyone an extra week to prepare for and get to the final, but it also avoids playing on Thanksgiving weekend.
There appears to be no easy solution to the start-and-stop MLS playoff schedule -- four dates in 12 days, followed by two dates in four weeks -- absent switching to a fall-spring season when the absence of FIFA fixture dates in April and May would give MLS clear sailing to play through the final weeks of its season without conflict.