For Pete's Sake

Winter schedule? No thanks

Photo: Stephen Speer

The minute I got out of my car, parked at the edge of the Delaware River, I knew I’d made a huge mistake.

The early evening wind, cold as liquid nitrogen, whipped off the river and cut directly through every layer of clothing. As the sun set, remnants of the day’s snowfall still dusted the parking lot’s gravel surface. Outside the gates of Subaru Park were clumps of vaguely person-shaped figures, wrapped in layers of puffy shirts and heavy gloves.

By the time Saturday night’s Union-Earthquakes game kicked off at 7:30 p.m., it was 26 degrees in Chester, with the wind chill dipping deep into the teens. The players looked uniformly miserable. San Jose keeper JC Marcinkowski ran sprints any time the ball was at the opposite end of the pitch, desperate to keep warm in the most sedentary position on the field. In the visiting technical area, Quakes manager Matias Almeyda wore what appeared to be an enormous sleeping bag for a coat.

The Union won the game without much difficulty, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience for anyone. Every kick of the ball and contact with the ground seemed to cause pain. Sergio Santos and Cory Burke competed to see who could pick up the most minor injuries. The masochistic referee only compounded the suffering by tacking eight minutes of second-half stoppage time onto a game that had ended half an hour earlier.

The sparse crowd left with the memory of a match unlike any other in Union history — along with (hopefully) all their fingers and toes.

As I walked back to my car, dreaming of nothing but a hot shower, I thought about the persistent rumor that Major League Soccer would like to change its calendar to a winter schedule, to better match most of the world’s top leagues. In that moment, I knew exactly what I would say to commissioner Don Garber if he sought my opinion:

“Are you nuts?”

It’s just good business

Set aside, for a moment, the weather. When you look at the full scope of the American sports landscape, the summer schedule makes a ton of sense for MLS. Consider:

  • Under the summer schedule, much of the MLS season takes place when the only other sport in-season is baseball and where the weekends are relatively uncontested. A winter schedule would put MLS up against the NBA and NHL more directly, and would force the league to compete with both the NFL and college football during the weekends.
  • A May-June MLS playoffs, too, would run into direct competition with the NBA and NHL playoffs, while the current calendar allows MLS Cup to be played after the World Series has concluded. For a brief moment, MLS has the championship stage all to itself.

The business case for a winter schedule is that it would align the league’s primary transfer window with that of the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A, etc. The theory is that having MLS’s main transfer window in the winter makes it challenging for North American clubs to buy and sell players, inhibiting the league’s relevance in the global marketplace.

That causation seems backwards. Right now, the challenge for the league is that European clubs don’t think very highly of America, MLS, or its players. (The initial reaction in England to the appointment of Jesse Marsch as Leeds United’s new head coach — mocking the apparently laughable concept of holding a team huddle — is just one example of that trend.)

The way to change that isn’t to move the shop window. It’s to convince clubs that the goods in that shop window are more appealing.

And I can’t think of anything less appealing than putting those goods in a blast freezer.

Ice to see you

There is no league in the world with a geographic spread quite like MLS. Nearly 3,500 miles separate the two most distant points on the MLS map, Miami and Vancouver. And so there’s no schedule that will perfectly work for every team weather-wise. There will be some hot days this summer in Los Angeles, Houston, and Orlando — no question.

But the league can (and does) work around those issues. (Well, except for the 9 a.m. games during the MLS is Back Tournament. #NeverForget.) Night games in hot climates allow most of the heat to burn off and for the game to be played at a relatively comfortable temperature. Games can be paused for hydration breaks.

Short of each player carrying around their own portable heater, that isn’t possible in the winter. Even shifting matches to daytime won’t necessarily avoid the brutal cold or snow that places like Minnesota, Toronto, Columbus, or Montreal would feature throughout matches played in December, January, or February. Just ask Honduras what it’s like to try to play a World Cup qualifier in February in St. Paul.

Extreme cold also has a greater effect on gameplay. The ball turns into an unpredictable rock; the playing surface into a sheet of ice. There was little technical ability on display on Saturday night in Chester, with pass after pass either over- or under-cooked and every challenge a wild adventure. Games in heat may drag late in the second half, but at least the ball and the pitch behave predictably.

So let games like Saturday night’s be a rarity, a once-in-a-decade memory for the hardy fans who decide to sit outside even as ice pellets fall from the Subaru Park overhangs.

For the rest of us, let’s stick to a summer schedule.


  1. Jeremy Lane says:


  2. Andy Muenz says:

    Was the huge mistake showing up at the game Saturday or leaving the West Coast weather? 🙂 🙂
    I commented on the player ratings, but I’ll reiterate it here. Despite my having to sit in the cold longer the ref was fully justified in adding that stoppage time given what San Jose did in their last game and what was going on in Foxboro at the time. If the Union had been able to put in a 3rd goal, then I would agree that forgoing stoppage time would have been fine. (I actually said to my wife after Gazdag scored the PK that the Union needed one more to eliminate stoppage time.)

    • Every day I wonder why I left California. (More in the summer, honestly, because July/August in the Bay is infinitely better than the Philly swamp.)
      Fair point, but even if it hadn’t been cold, I thought eight minutes was way too much stoppage time. And you could have given San Jose fifty minutes of stoppage time and they weren’t going to score…

  3. Chris Gibbons says:

    I’ll admit, I didn’t mind the 9am kickoff.

  4. Yes, yes, yes! Ilsinho deserved better. Perhaps the second most popular player ever behind LeToux and there wasn’t a crowded stadium to see him off. The business model for playing this game makes no sense. No walkup crowd, parking,vending, etc. Perhaps day games early in the season make a little more sense. As Carlos Gil has so aptly put it, “This is not football”!

  5. 100% concur. And this article hardly even touches the fact that a winter schedule would severely impact attendance in cold weather cities. Subaru Park looked maybe only 30% full in the first half, and almost empty in the second. Even the River End was only half full. I know I have zero interest in attending matches that are played in the freezing cold, when I can be watching on TV in my warm house.

    If they went winter schedule they’d almost have to give the cold weather cities a two-month (at least) non-stop road trip. That is not good for the league.

  6. Didn’t go on Saturday. And yes weather was the reason…both myself and my bride were under it! Friday was a long travel day and we didn’t see the sheets till 2 AM Saturday morning. We don’t rebound as quick as we once did. But full respect to both teams and everyone who attended that game! The schedule change,IMO, is about trying to shake the stigma of being a second tier league. I think viewer ship falls off due to all the other competition, also attendance would suffer. Europe has heated fields,and if that’s needed to sustain the grass and keep the ground from being concrete like,just another experience.

  7. I concur. The only other factor is kickoff time. Winter games would often work better if played in the daytime. That wouldn’t have helped much last Saturday in the snow, but I recall attending a season opener — I think it was Jay Simpson’s first game — in which it was cold but felt so much worse when the sun went down. I recall going from feeling a little cold to chilled to the bone.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      Basically, as far as I’m concerned, there should never be a weekend game ending after 5pm before the end of March unless absolutely mandated by national television.

      • Agree to have only afternoon games in March. Was a joke on Saturday. Everyone around us were freezing and most of us left at halftime. Was happy to sit at home and watch the last half hour.

  8. I was there. I was there for the duration, from watching the team “warmup” to the final whistle. Even a little beyond, watching El Brujo and whoever it was from the other team argue on their way off the pitch.
    I dressed the same way I dressed to go skiing two weeks prior. In Maine.
    (except for the ski pants).
    I. Was. Miserable.
    There is absolutely no reason MLS should even consider moving to a winter schedule. It would be the stupidest sports move next to the MLB lock-out this winter.

    • AMEN… Exactly. But I had on ski pants… refuse to miss a game for any reason but a few over the years.

      Even contacted Union Management with a request to move game to Sunday…. Brandon knows. [NOT a Joe Biden ref… My Tix Guy is named Brandon.]

      Fans built this league, and Clown Garber ignores us totally.

  9. Peter Andrews assertion about MLS travel is correct.

    Only if the Russian Premier League had a team from Irkutsk next to Lake Baikal, would travel distance from St. Petersburg compete with MLS’s Miami to Vancouver, MLS’s longest distance.

    Currently the Russian League’s furthest distanced teams are St. Petersburg, Grozny, and Yekaterinburg, and none of those distances are 3,000 miles.
    If Vladivostok ever had a team that made the top flight, then they would have to greatest distance hands down. Vladivostok to Kaliningrad covers 13 time zones.

  10. If the season is changed… ZERO season tickets for me, as a Founding Member.

    Honestly… I love the Philly double-header… day match at Subaru, night game at CBP.

    But Clown Garber could care less what fans think… Or Carlos Gil!

    BTW GREAT FUTURE SIGNING ANNOUNCED. Venezuela 18 year old a buddy of mine in Caracus says is the real deal…. IF he can deal with living in the USA at 18.

    In Herr Tanner we trust.
    Curtin too.

  11. I completely agree I’m a single father with two young girls that I bring to games. I could not justify making my kids sit through a MLS game in freezing temps. Not to mention I don’t like to spend money to be miserable. If the league shifted to a winter schedule I would have to reevaluate my season tickets.

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