For MLS, now comes the hard part

By the end of business on Monday, we should get confirmation that the 2021 MLS season is a go.

Players have until noon ET to vote on amendments to the collective bargaining agreement MLSPA representatives approved. MLS's board of governors also need to sign off on the deal.

Preseason opens on Feb. 22, and opening day of MLS's 26th season is April 3, the latest start since the 2007 season.

The eight-month season -- regular season and playoffs -- is consistent with the length of the 2019 and scheduled 2020 season before the pandemic hit. In 2018, MLS started on March 3 and finished on Dec. 8 for a nine-month season. In 2021, the 34-game regular season extends over 32 weeks -- the same as 2019, MLS's last full season  -- and MLS Cup is scheduled on Dec. 11.

MLS initially targeted a start date of early to mid-March. That never seemed realistic, given the state of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pushing the start of the 2021 season back to April has its benefits for both players and owners. Players get a longer offseason to rest after the toll 2020 took both on and off the field. Owners can hope -- it's still just a hope -- the pandemic will ease up in the month from March to April to allow their stadiums to finally re-open for fans or open at increased capacity levels.

The relatively late start to the season will present challenges, though.

It cuts down on the window MLS has to make up any games postponed because of COVID-related issues. For league games, that's not much of an issue. A game postponed in April can be rescheduled in May or September without any difference. Postponements crop up every year, due to weather issues or stadium conflicts.

Late starts for cup competitions. The problem is, both cup competitions in which MLS teams are traditionally entered -- the U.S. Open Cup and Concacaf Champions League -- will also have late starts, and MLS plans to resume the Leagues Cup, which was expanded to include eight MLS and eight Liga MX teams in 2020.

The four (or five) MLS teams entered in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League face a hectic opening month with the CCL games scheduled for three of four midweeks in April and the first midweek of May.

U.S. Soccer has not announced the dates or format for the 2021 Open Cup other than Open Division teams qualified for the cancelled 2020 competition qualify for 2021. The 2020 Open Cup was scheduled to start on March 24-25 and the first MLS teams were slated to begin play in the third round on April 21-23.

Those dates won't work in 2021. MLS doesn't start until April 3. USL Championship teams are allowed to start anywhere from April 24 to May 15. USL League One will start "on or about May 8," though teams can start as early as April 10. NISA is scheduled to begin the spring season on May 1 after its own cup competition is completed. The more dates U.S. Soccer needs to find in the summer for the Open Cup the more likely they potentially conflict with the Campeones Cup.

The problem with cup competitions, as federations around the world are facing during the 2020-21 pandemic, is that rescheduling postponed cup games is no easy feat.

In all MLS, will have to set aside 18 dates -- seven for the Concacaf Champions League, six for the Open Cup, four for the Leagues Cup and one for the Campeones Cup, on top of the 34 dates for regular-season league play and any windows it wants to set aside for COVID- or weather-related makeup dates in its 32-week regular season.

Busy international schedule. MLS teams also face the prospect of losing an unprecedented number of players for international competition. By starting in April, MLS avoids the March FIFA window, but three of the four remaining international windows in 2021 have been expanded: four dates in June and three in September and October to allow national teams to make up for inactivity in 2020. The only 2021 window with two dates -- November -- is the only no MLS teams will play through because it comes between the end of the regular season and start of the playoffs.

For the USA, there's the Concacaf Nations League in June, Gold Cup in July and World Cup 2022 qualifying in September, October and November, not to mention the possibility of sending a team to the Olympics in June. The U.S. roster for the Concacaf Nations League and World Cup 2022 qualifying will most likely be dominated by European-based players. The USA will likely take mostly MLS players to the Gold Cup and Olympics (if it qualifies).

There are not just U.S. or Canadian players to consider. The European Championship (June 11-July 11) and Copa America (June 11-July 10) will also be played this summer.

After 2020, everyone was rooting for the return of normal schedules in 2021. It will put MLS teams and their players to the test.

Photo: Atlanta United vs. Minnesota United (2019 Open Cup final).

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications