MLS

Taking a backseat: MLS continues play while stars are away

Photo: Barb Colligon

It’s almost World Cup time, and Major League Soccer has been touting how many of its players are on international rosters. All the while, the league is still playing matches.

Yes, after this weekend’s fixtures the league enjoys a three week break. But many players have already been off training, including Philadelphia Union’s Maurice Edu. He was absent for two matches — or one, assuming the concussion reports were correct.

Losing star power

This is a double-edged sword for MLS. The league relies on its stars to drive viewership and ticket sales. How many fans of the Galaxy grimaced when they saw that Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan were going to be away with Ireland and the US, respectively? Quite a few.

On the other hand, it’s good PR for MLS to have players on international duty. In a poll released by Sports Business Journal, it’s quite clear that support for the USMNT is huge. If MLS players like Kyle Beckerman or Brad Davis can influence a positive outcome in Brazil, the potential exists that more fans will consider the merits of the domestic league.

So for MLS, the best option would be to lengthen the break. Good luck with that.

The window for the MLS season is pretty narrow — and that’s even after efforts in recent years to extend it. Diverse climate conditions greatly disfavor the fall-to-spring schedule that much of the world follows. The 32-week March-to-October MLS regular season time-frame presents a daunting task, to cram 34 matches in the midst of the US Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, and lucrative summer friendlies.

So what can MLS do?

Even out the number of teams

There has been a lot of venting out there regarding the large disparity in games played between teams. For example, as of this writing, Philadelphia has played 5 more matches than Toronto.

Much of this games played disparity is created by the odd number of teams currently in the league. Every week, one team gets a bye. In theory that would shove an extra match in. But there are some weeks where 3 or 5 teams are off.

Let’s take Toronto as an example. They’ve played 10 league matches thus far, leaving 24 remaining to close out the season. Figuring in this World Cup break, they have 19 weeks to stuff the 24 games. That’s 5 midweek games to close out the season, which is quite a bit, but not unreasonable.

25 Saturdays

If MLS had begun their break on May 14 (the day players reported to Jurgen Klinsmann’s camp) and ended at the beginning of July (which assumes the probability that the US doesn’t advance deep in the knockouts), there would be 28 Saturdays between the beginning of March and the end of October. There are also three internationally mandated weekends off during that time frame, which reduces the number of available Saturdays for MLS games to 25. That means the league would need to schedule 9 midweek matches over an entire season.

That would be an aggressive move, and might lead to some teams needing to rotate their squad more. Still, getting Landon Donovan for 30 minutes off the bench is better than not having him at all, right?

It should be a priority for MLS to honor international soccer as much as possible, as well as their own standards of competition. Certainly the MLS Cup Playoffs ensures a good team that loses players has their fair shake at a title. In the grand scheme it may not be a big deal, but it is another one of those things that makes MLS seem out-of-touch with the rest of the footballing world.

International soccer isn’t going away. And as the league grows in stature, with big spenders like Sheikh Mansour becoming owners, losing players to international call-ups during league play will stand out even more.

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