Commentary

How to solve MLS's short-season dilemma

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

Jurgen Klinsmann says the MLS season needs to be longer. How much longer the pro soccer season should be is debatable, but let's accept that the nine-month season for the eight teams that don't make the playoffs -- a few days more for the four teams that will be eliminated in the play-ins in 2015 -- is too short.

There is no chance -- at least in the lifetime of the new (eight-year) MLS television deal -- that MLS would ever consider scrapping the playoffs in order for every team to play into early December when MLS Cup is currently held. It will not happen.

You can also debate the actual number of games MLS teams need to play compared to teams from other parts of the world. After all, MLS's 34-game regular season is consistent with the league games played in an 18-team league -- FIFA's recommended size. But Klinsmann's point is MLS players need to be focused and working for longer than they are now.

Klinsmann's specific concern is extra work for national team incumbents or candidates -- the players under his reins. But it also applies to players on the under-23 and under-20 national teams as well.

As an example, one of the under-23 players Klinsmann called into January camp is the LA Galaxy's promising outside back, Oscar Sorto. The Galaxy reached MLS Cup, which was played on Dec. 7, but Sorto's MLS playing time last season was limited to 15 minutes and his season effectively ended when Galaxy II was eliminated in the semifinals of the USL PRO playoffs in October.

The lack of work for some of the U-20s preparing for January's Concacaf tournament in Jamaica was such an issue that a 10-day fitness camp for 10 field players, all but two of whom play for MLS clubs, was held in early December in Florida.

The point is, Klinsmann is not the only coach needing to find extra work for players. There is no perfect solution to the problem, but one model comes from baseball.

Major League Baseball operates the Arizona Fall League (AFL) in October and November. The 30 MLB clubs stock the six teams, all based at baseball complexes in and around Phoenix, and furnish the managers and coaches. Each AFL team provides seven players, mostly Triple-A or Double-A players, for the 31-games season.

The MLS model could be similar. Working in cooperation with U.S. Soccer (and the Canadian Soccer Association), MLS clubs could each send four players, stocking four teams of 20 players each for a six-week season beginning with the end of the regular season and going through the weekend of MLS Cup.

The players could be national team players Klinsmann wants to get extra work, or under-23 or under-20 players whose playing time ended when their USL PRO seasons ended. They could be players coming off injuries and needing extra work or they could be players who might be tested out at a new position (which is often the case in the AFL).

Such a development league doesn't translate as neatly for the national team program or MLS clubs as what the AFL offers for MLB. It's a lot simpler setting up a league to get pitchers innings or batters at-bats (or instruction for fielders working out at new positions) than it is putting 11 players out on a soccer field together for the first time and getting something useful out it. But the intent is the same: providing an environment for players to get better and place for them to show up for work every day.

Like the baseball complexes constructed in the Phoenix suburbs for MLS spring training, there are soccer complexes in Arizona that would be available in the fall, namely FC Tucson's Kino Sports Complex and Grande Sports World in Casa Grande, the home of Real Salt Lake academy program between Phoenix and Tucson. Both have working relationships with many MLS clubs for preseason training going on right now.

FC Tucson held such an event in November 2013 when it hosted the FC Tucson Fall Showcase against Chivas USA, which was seeking offseason competition after its regular season ended.

Arizona's location close to Mexico offers the possibility of including potentially crowd-drawing Mexican clubs in the circuit. For all the problems created by MLS's use of a playoff system, it shouldn't be forgotten that Liga MX has it worse, operating split seasons that both end with playoffs.
9 comments about "How to solve MLS's short-season dilemma".
  1. Gus Keri, February 6, 2015 at 9:28 a.m.

    Another idea is to create a new tournament in the winter to be played in the southern part of the country. All MLS clubs participate and the play off could overlap with the beginning of the MLS season. Give incentive to clubs by sending the winner to the CCL. Call it the "Winter Cup."

  2. BJ Genovese, February 6, 2015 at 9:31 a.m.

    Do other National team coaches pick player that only had 15 minutes of play time besides US soccer coach? I highly doubt it. Maybe that should be a mandate for US soccer. They can only pick players that actually have over a 1000 minutes a year on the pitch. Maybe we will see a difference. He just needs to stop dictating and start playing chess. Plenty of game pieces to choose.

  3. John Pepple, February 6, 2015 at 10:17 a.m.

    Klinsmann says we should have a season of eleven months like the rest of the world. Has he checked out the length of the season in countries like Sweden or Russia? Just like us, they have shorter seasons because of the harsh winters.

  4. Coach Tony, February 6, 2015 at 1:49 p.m.

    A great idea, Paul, but let's do it properly. Each MLS team sends 6 players + 1GK to camp; player selection: all fit USMNT players out of MLS CUP + all US U23 + all US U20 + any "top" US players - chosen by their MLS team; each "team" in the MLS Winter Tournament(NOT CUP) is 12 players +2gk; US Soccer pays - they provide coaches - they run training - they coach players - all teams play 3-4-3 - US Soccer establishes the style of play within 3-4-3 system; Winter Tournament runs Oct-Dec 15ish.
    This format allows for the MLS teams to provide current and future USMNT players two more months "on the ball" AND allows MLS teams to target their 18-24 year olds for another professional developmental environment for free. Who could complain?
    Players in Europe/SA aren't invited b/c they're already playing "in season".

  5. David Sirias, February 6, 2015 at 1:49 p.m.

    A meaningful winter tournament for teams that don't make the playoffs would work. Such as an automatic tiebreaker point during regular season. But the real solution is fall --spring calendar -- break from early December to late Feb. Yes the break would be longer than the summer tournaments break. But collectively it's not enough time for players to lose form especially if camps start up in AZ etc in February And don't get me started on playing in snow in NE in February. The cold weather teams could certainly be scheduled for two week road trips at the start of the spring campaign It's totally doable once expansion is complete in the south

  6. Dan Phillips, February 6, 2015 at 5:07 p.m.

    Stop the constant whining about the schedule. Scandinavian and Russian leagues play same calendar as MLS, and I do not hear their national team coaches whining. Get rid of Klinsmann and his big mouth and let's get a real coach.

  7. John DiFiore, February 6, 2015 at 7:42 p.m.

    I'm not sure why this is for MLS to solve??? Sounds like a USSF problem... Klinsi should have his own 2 month US camp and include players of all ages to stay fit AND improve skills. Yes, IMPROVE SKILLS. Even CR7 has gotten better over the last 8 years.. I'm tired of US coaches not taking responsibility for fitness AND TECHNICAL SKILL(S).

  8. Andrzej Kowalski, February 10, 2015 at 2:07 a.m.

    Divide MLS into MLS1 10 top teams and MLS2 10 bottom teams.and every half of the season (2 times per year ) relegate bottom 5 teams from MLS1 to MLS2 and promote 5 top teams from MLS2 to MLS1. MLS can have 2 champions every year or to play spring champion and fall champion in MLS cup. Because as it is now for most of the season nothing happens. Second this would add 4 additional games to every team. This system has advantages from both European and American systems. European system has one flow it relegates to few teams,creating safe middle of table. While in American system regular season does not mean much so it is boring and for a month most of teams do not play.

  9. MICHAEL GUPPY, October 16, 2015 at 9:41 a.m.

    The EPL has 38 games in a season plus the FA Cup, Football League Cup, FA Youth Cup and the U21 Premier League Cup to play in and of course some teams play in Europe/International games. American soccer cannot afford to pay players for more games with a 3.8 million salary cap. If some other competitions were played based solely as a non league competition so teams could play without a hit on the salary cap it would keep players more active. Setting up a tiered league system might be an idea also.

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