The 2008 MLS season is far from over, yet Commissioner Don Garber
has already begun lobbying for 2009 to be the Year of the Conflict.
numerous MLS teams will be again be deprived of players called up to play for their national teams in World Cup qualifiers, and league executives will again jab, duck and parry the inevitable
criticisms of teams stripped of important players as the playoff chase intensifies. That's just a warmup for next year.
MLS has yet to determine how it will distribute games in a 15-team
alignment, with expansion Seattle set to join. It could re-align into a single table and reduce the number of games to 28, with each team playing each of its rivals home and away. (That would leave
the total number of games at 210, as it was this year.) Or MLS could juggle the matchups and retain a 30-game schedule whether or not it re-aligns, but that would require the playing of an
additional 15 games.
Garber has all but dismissed notions that MLS will forego play during the five 2009 competitive FIFA windows, which begin in late March and conclude in November.
(There are also several midweek dates set aside for friendlies.)
Yet by starting in early April, MLS could play a 28- or even a 30-game schedule, accommodate the U.S. Open Cup and
Concacaf Champions League, and still sit out most of the international dates. It would have to play through the Confederations Cup (June 14-29) and Gold Cup (July 3-26), as it has done in the
Squeezing SuperLiga into the mix would be difficult, yet the league will encounter far greater criticism for ignoring FIFA dates next year, when 10 qualifiers must be played in less
than eight months, than it did this season.
But there are sufficient weekends from April 4 to Oct. 25 -- 27 to be exact -- to play the regular season (given some midweek dates in May and
August perhaps), complete four subsequent weekends of playoffs and MLS Cup, and still finish before Thanksgiving, even if it respects the FIFA dates. Starting earlier, maybe in mid-March, would free
up more dates, but there really aren't enough teams in temperate cities to make that work.
MLS used a 31-weekend schedule (March 29-Oct. 26) for its regular season this year, so
tweaking a bye team into fewer weekends next year won't be easy. But it's not impossible, either.
A tough conflict is the Nov. 14-18, 2009 window, which falls right in the middle of the
playoffs, and while the U.S. could well be qualified after eight Hexagonal matches, there's no guarantee that it would be. The league will also have difficulty dealing with an odd number of teams
but some clever scheduling can minimize the burden of teams playing twice in the same week and/or a rested team playing one coming off a midweek game. That, too, will be burdensome, yet coaches
would much prefer that scenario to missing top players for several qualifiers as well as two official competitions. The fans and broadcast partners would like, it, too. So would the players.
Anything is better than plunging blindly ahead, downgrading league matches for the sake of convenience or, of all things, SuperLiga. MLS can make it work if it wants to, perhaps by steering
clear of at least a few FIFA dates, perhaps those in June (6-10) that precede the Confederations Cup, for which head coach Bob Bradley
may choose to use most
of his European-based players.
On the other hand, Bradley might have to prepare one team for the Confederations Cup and use a different squad for the qualifiers if the turnaround time is too
MLS turned its schedule inside out this year to accommodate SuperLiga games at the expense of the FIFA dates. That backward thinking has to stop; a few MLS teams were sacrificing
precious weekend dates to play SuperLiga matches and that can't continue, either. Like the Champions League, be it Concacaf or UEFA, international club games are played midweek. Period.
The 2009 competitive fixture dates are: March 28-April 1; June 6-10; Sept. 5-9; Oct. 10-14; and Nov. 14-18. Let the lobbying begin.