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MLS Bites Off More Than It Can Chew
by Ridge Mahoney, September 8th, 2008 10AM
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For the past decade, any time MLS officials made remarks about altering the regular-season schedule to accommodate international competitions, coaches and general managers knew it was time to reach for their collection of rock music, flip to the Led Zeppelin stack, and pull out, "The Song Remains the Same."

Either the album or the film version would do. League officials always said the right thing about lightening up the schedule during World Cups or international fixture dates, but nobody ever noticed much difference.

Yet last year were released re-mastered and remixed audio and video versions of the 1976 Zep productions, and next year the league simply has to release a cleaner and crisper method of conducting its regular season. This song has to change.

There isn't any alternative or excuse any more. When 32 MLS players miss games last weekend to play for their national teams, and Toronto FC is signing a USL player (Diaz Kambere), a former MLS/USL fringe player (Rick Titus), and one of its scouts (Tim Regan, formerly of the MetroStars and Chivas USA) just to get through a game, the league's stubbornness has morphed into embarrassment.

MLS can't possibly believe operator-investors who are plunging hundreds of millions of dollars into teams, stadiums, and league infrastructure will sit quietly as rookies, teenagers, and short-term loanees take the field with precious points at stake. The fans are fed up, too.

D.C. United operator-investor William Chang, whose business empire is based in San Francisco, attended D.C.'s 2-1 loss to San Jose Saturday night. Injuries had decimated his team, but one absence - captain and playmaker Jaime Moreno - was due to an international callup. Moreno wasn't even named to the Bolivian squad of 18 that lost to Ecuador, 3-1, in Quito.

Chang attends D.C. games frequently and occasionally shows up at events like last summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup in Chicago. He knows and understands the FIFA regulations regarding players summoned to play for their countries. A coach's decision or injury can knock a player out of an important national team game. But should such commitments significantly affect the playoff chase?

This year Houston, Chivas USA, New England and D.C. United played fewer league matches in July to accommodate SuperLiga games, and that forced Houston and D.C., which received byes into the group phase of the Champions' League, to play more league games in August to free up dates for another heavy load of midweek CCL games in September and October.

Had New England and Chivas USA advanced out of the CCL preliminary round they'd have been in the same boat, and don't think the prospect of six more games and additional travel, fatigue, etc., didn't factor into how those teams approached their meetings with Joe Public FC and Tauro FC, respectively.

Next year is the busiest ever. The U.S. will compete in the Confederations Cup (June 14-29) and the Concacaf Gold Cup (July 3-26). Teams are obligated to release players for both competitions and how U.S. coach Bob Bradley can possibly field strong squads comprised of European-based and domestic players for both competitions is beyond me.

The FIFA windows for competitive matches are: March 28/April 1; June 6-10; Sept. 5-9; Oct. 10-14; and Nov. 14-18. Any way you do the math it doesn't add up and there are no perfect solutions, only tough compromises.

League commissioner Don Garber has suggested an earlier start to the regular season, perhaps mid-March, to alleviate some of the congestion. Some pundits have suggested MLS could cut down the number of games per team from 30 to 28 - each of the 15 teams would play each league opponent twice - to free up more dates. A shorter playoff schedule could cut one week from the postseason.

The league will conduct extensive discussions with U.S. Soccer and CONCACAF to address the staggering number of friendlies, World Cup qualifiers, U.S. Open Cup matches, and two editions (2008-9 and 2009-10) of CONCACAF Champions League games that need to be staged in the 2009 calendar year.

Yet the presence of a 15th team - Seattle - will offset a reduction in the number of MLS games, since one team must be left out of each round. Also, the total number of games wouldn't change!

Fourteen teams each playing 30 games equals a-210 game schedule. Fifteen teams playing 28 games equals, wait for it, 210 games, and because of the 15th team, more match days would be required to play the same number of games.

So, what to do?

MLS has to alter the course it took this year by shifting other schedules to accommodate SuperLiga. It can sprinkle those games midweek during a portion of the league schedule, or convert to a knockout tournament, or drop its mano-a-mano contrivance altogether.

This year, it sacrificed some weekend dates to play SuperLiga matches instead of league games. Wrong. MLS is not nearly strong enough at the gate to blow off Saturday night league action so its teams can host Atlante or Pachuca or Santos Laguna.

There's no other way to accommodate the FIFA windows, at least two or three of them if not the entire allotment of five. MLS can't ditch the U.S. Open Cup, and would be committing political suicide by shunning the Champions' League, which in any case, is a far truer test of just how good are MLS teams compared to their Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean counterparts.

If something has to go, it has to be SuperLiga. And that's the name of that tune.

  1. Teddy Roe
    commented on: September 8, 2008 at 1 p.m.
    Hi: I have much sympathy for overworked soccer players. It is not easy to play as many as three games, plus intervening practices, in a seven-day period. So my advice to MLS: cut back sensibly on extra-MLS involvement. You are diluting the quality of play in a league that is already challenged in the skill department. My sympathy is in short supply, however, in another area. Toronto is missing so many players for international duty that it cannot function. Poor babies. No one made them sign so many foreigners that domestic players -- supposedly the principal focus of our domestic league -- cannot get a job. Shades of the English Premier League: the top teams employ so few English players that England cannot field a consistently winning team in international competition. I strongly support FIFA President Sepp Blatter's "6 and 5" concept: league teams globally should "start" a majority of domestic players in each game. They can always substitute later but at the risk of using up their allowable substitutions. Teddy Roe
  1. Len Oliver
    commented on: September 8, 2008 at 3:21 p.m.
    I've argued for years that MLS should join the World's soccer calendar by starting in late August and going through June, with appropriate byes for the International calendar. The original MLS schedule was designed to take on baseball for spectators and media attention, and to make use of the unused NFL stadiums in the spring and summer. With the advent of soccer-specific stadia, with the growth in the game and the media attention growing apace, there is no longer justification for the March-November schedule. Besides, if you've played our game, who wants to run for 90 minutes in 90 degree temperature and 90 degree humidity? The rest of the world thinks we are crazy! Let's rectify our schedule. Play an abbreviated schedule next spring-summer, and start the real season next August. We are then back in tune with world soccer. Len Oliver Washington, DC

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