MLS players want a break -- why it won't happen

By Paul Kennedy

ESPN FC's MLS player poll, compiled by our colleagues Jeffrey Carlisle and Doug McIntyre, is a must-read if you are an MLS fan.

Players were asked their views on a ton of topics (examples: Jurgen Klinsmann's selections, their European options and MLS in the Concacaf Champions League) and responded about the most overrated player (Mix Diskerud), underrated player (Dax McCarty and Darlington Nagbe) and favored coach (Bruce Arena) in MLS.

Players were split on promotion/relegation -- 51-49 percent against vs. 64-34 percent in favor a year ago -- and almost unanimous -- 99-1 percent -- that the standard of play in MLS is getting better.

Next in terms of agreement was the players' position on playing during FIFA breaks. Even more than whether they were paid fairly -- no by 84-8 percent -- players agreed by 92-8 percent that MLS should not continue during international breaks.

There are three FIFA windows during the 2016 MLS regular season -- this weekend and weekends in September and October -- and one during the playoffs in November -- which it takes off. MLS will take off the first two weekends of June's Copa Centenario -- one a FIFA window -- though it will resume play for the last two weekends.

While most major leagues stop during FIFA windows, MLS gives clubs the option of playing during them, MLS’s vice president of club services and scheduling, Brad Pursel, said in a Q&A on MLS's schedule.

Six teams will be play this weekend even though will be missing an average of almost four players because of international commitments.

MLS Week 4 Schedule
New York City (3) vs. New England (2)
D.C. United (2) vs. FC Dallas (7)
Vancouver (6) vs. Houston (2)
Note: International callups in parentheses.

Carlisle and McIntyre quoted a couple of players opposed to playing through the FIFA windows:

"The quality of games is what we're after -- not depleting our teams during international breaks. It's not beneficial to the league."

"All the best leagues in the world take them off. If we're trying to get to their level, why would we play on those dates?"

The problem MLS clubs have is their heavy component of midweek games. Compared to the Bundesliga, the only big five European league that also plays a 34-game schedule, MLS plays more than twice as many midweek dates:

MLS Regular Season (34 games over 34 weeks)
28.3 Weekend Dates
4.4 Midweek Dates
1.3 FIFA Weekend Dates
(3 FIFA Weekends)

Bundesliga (34 games over 36 weeks)
32.0 Weekend Dates
2.0 Midweek Dates
(4 FIFA Weekends)

Midweek dates are frowned on because teams generally draw fewer fans and schedule congestion (complicated by travel within North America), requires coaches to rotate their lineups and reduces the quality of play.

MLS will play 13 games during the three FIFA windows in 2016. That's an average of just 1.3 games per team that would need to cleared to eliminate conflicts with FIFA windows. But beyond moving more games into the midweek, MLS has little room to maneuver, absent extending the regular season at the expense of the playoffs (something Arena, for one, is all for.)

That doesn't address MLS's summer problem. Besides the eight MLS games played on eve of the Copa Centenario, 22 games will be played in the last two weeks of the tournament after league play resumes.

MLS's regular-season scheduling problems will get worse in 2017 when it has to deal with four FIFA weekends -- March, June, September and October -- plus the Gold Cup, which will be played over four weekends in July.

MLS would solve those problems the Bundesliga and other leagues avoid by switching to a summer-spring schedule and not playing in the late May-early August summer period.

Flipping the schedule makes sense for a bunch of reasons, but MLS would have to give up its popular summer dates and all or most of its playoff windows to make it work -- something it will never do.
12 comments about "MLS players want a break -- why it won't happen".
  1. Fire Paul Gardner Now, March 23, 2016 at 11:34 a.m.

    You neglect to mention the biggest reason why MLS will never (and should never) switch to a fall-spring schedule- it's just too cold in much of the country to play games in January/February.

  2. Wooden Ships replied, March 23, 2016 at 3:27 p.m.

    I think the gains in switching out way the keeping of the same. Growing up in St. Louis the soccer season was through the dead of winter, high school-70's (when men were men and we walked up hill both ways, barefoot). We also played without leggings/long johns. Are we admitting that egg ball players are tougher? How cold is too cold? Or, or, or will synthetic turf break off if played on below a certain temperature?

  3. Wooden Ships, March 23, 2016 at 3:40 p.m.

    The most startling info in this article is the players position on promotion-relegation. Seems like half and perhaps growing is this affinity for the other pro sports in this country. Soccer has a chance to be unlike the other boring sports, by walking the walk. Where's the competitive fire and risk taking that sports is inherently about? I guess having the participation ribbon/certificate is acceptable as goes our every body must feel good society. Arena is right about shortening the playoffs and that could be helpful in coexisting more with international conflicts if we don't switch the season. With more and more teams coming pro-rel should be the players and fans goal.

  4. David Sirias, March 23, 2016 at 3:50 p.m.

    Never is a long time. I'd wager the switch happens after the current tv contract ends. The playoffs in November will continue to draw awful tv numbers. Not having transfer windows than line up with Europe will still be problem for many many reasons. And the fans will simply not show up for bench teams as the FIFA weekend problem will get worse.

    The loss of in game revenue will be surpassed by tv revenue gains if the switch happens. Most teams, especially after expansion to 28 will have no problem filling seats on Wednesday. There will still be summer friendlies with big euro teams--preseason for. BOTH. A late July to Memorial Day schedule is not hard to do if ever team is asked to play one Wednesday game home / away. In other words no Friday games, one Wednesday game of the week 33 weekends 4 FIFA weekends honored. The winter break could be from after Black Friday weekend or even first weekend of Dec to March 1

    MLS would actually start winning CCL with the switch. I've heard all the conservative arguments for keeping the status quo. Conservatism is always wrong in the long run.

  5. Wooden Ships replied, March 23, 2016 at 5:31 p.m.

    Well said David and backed with, what appears to me, clear direction. Very nice.

  6. Raymond Weigand, March 23, 2016 at 4 p.m.

    Pro-Rel is a funny concept for a league that tries to balance and re-balance the teams - I guess in an effort for the home team to have a better chance at winning - to keep the fans coming back - continuing their buying spree of MLS jerseys of really old and almost retired players. (The latest case study occurring in Colorado)

  7. beautiful game, March 23, 2016 at 6 p.m.

    Ironic favoritism; 99% of players said the standard of play is getting better. Perhaps with teams like LA, Portland, and Dallas one get a sense of getting better. ImHO, the overall team performances have positive moments, but when one witnesses exchange of ball possession four+ times in a row supplemented by idiotic commentary throughout most of the game with TV mug-shots galore leaves one perplexed. And how about the possession stats, etc...80-86%...that's delusional!!!

  8. Allan Lindh, March 23, 2016 at 9:12 p.m.

    Not complicated. Run from Sept to following May, like rest of world. Take a long Christmas break, and when you resume, load the schedule onto the southern teams. Get MLS out of the Open Cup, pack Wed games onto road teams on cross country flights, save on travel. Not complicated, will result in fewer people singing Mickey Mouse Club theme song at MLS matches.

  9. Wooden Ships replied, March 23, 2016 at 11:22 p.m.

    Allan, between you and David we have two simple solutions. Excellent. For some reason though we just have to be different, even to our detriment.

  10. Newman W Stemple, March 24, 2016 at 2:09 p.m.

    As MLS currently exists, promotion / relegation will not work. As long as MLS sells franchises to potential investors for $100M, what investor would buy in knowing that they may be relegated in a couple of years to the NASL. So, my suggestion would be to continue to grow until there were 30 teams in MLS. After a year or two, MLS could then be divided into an MLS 1st and 2nd division with promotion / relegation. With only 15 teams in each division, they could play a 28 game schedule. At this point, a 28 game schedule would allow the league to take off for FIFA breaks and maybe even change the season to align with the rest of the football world.

  11. Wooden Ships replied, March 25, 2016 at 12:33 p.m.

    Sounds good to me Newman. It needs to come about though. I think the fans of the game need to push the issue. If left up to owners and Garber, it won't. Once your followed team is eliminated from playoffs, stop attending. Stop buying season tickets, purchase only when there is something at stake. Soccer can can really shake up the US sporting landscape with the prom/rel environment.

  12. Anne Bidner, April 7, 2016 at 12:17 a.m.

    "MLS would solve by ... not playing in late May-early August" Um, great, but when do you propose those 2 1/2 months of games be moved to? Because MLS already plays mid-March to early Dec (including the playoff weeks that most other leagues don't contend with)-- that's almost 9 months. Moving the games would mean less than a month off in the winter. The avg low temp in Foxboro MA in, say, Feb is ~20 F, and can go well below zero, not including windchill. And avg foot of snow in that month alone. Even if you put the majority of the East Divn teams on the road in Jan/Feb, games would still be impacted by weather related travel issues causing some cancelled games.

    The only solution I see would be to reduce the number of games-- teams drop from playing teams in their conference to just Home and Away, not 3 times like it is now

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