As United States Men’s National Team fans and the U.S. Soccer Federation look for ways to avoid repeating the disaster of failing to qualify for the World Cup again, it is inescapable that the Stars and Stripes will need the help of Major League Soccer. This will be a difficult process for the league, and indeed these changes may never come. There is a tension between MLS and the USMNT that was most obviously displayed while Jurgen Klinsmann managed the team. MLS is a business, and the model it has adopted is often times at odds with the interests of the national team.
In 2014, after getting bounced from the World Cup in a tournament that the USMNT managed a win, a draw, and two losses in, Klinsmann criticized MLS by saying the league was hurting the national team. For his part, MLS Commissioner Don Garber responded by saying that the manager was wrong about MLS not being as good of a league as the European ones Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey had been playing in and that the manager’s comments would hurt MLS.
But, if MLS continues to advocate for the status quo when it comes to their league:
MLS cannot simply reject calls to change or the criticism that it hurts the USMNT will continue.
There were rumblings last month that one change might be considered by the league: changing the MLS playoffs so that they would begin after the November FIFA break. Of course, that was before the team failed to qualify for the World Cup, but at the very least it shows the league is open to change.
However, changing the playoff schedule is not what the league should do, it needs to adopt the fall (late summer) to spring schedule that the rest of the top five leagues in the world play. It can keep the playoffs and hold onto MLS Cup, but adopting the scheduling norms of the best leagues in the world will help MLS and the USMNT. This issue, among many others, was discussed on a recent episode of the Total Soccer Show, and the entire podcast is worth a listen.
There are obvious obstacles to implementing this kind of schedule. The main one is weather. It is cold in cities like Denver, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, Chicago, St. Paul, Columbus, Washington, and Philadelphia between December and February. But guess what? That doesn’t stop places like Norway and Russia from playing the same schedule as the rest of the world. They have come up with an elegant solution to things like cold and snow: they take a break in the winter.
Geography is often seen as a detriment to soccer in the U.S., but the diversity of regions where there are MLS teams is a benefit in this case. The league could take a break starting in early December, a month the league feels comfortable playing its championship game in, and start up again in February with games scheduled in cities with warmer weather or that have domed stadiums like Atlanta, Vancouver, and Montreal. This would not be difficult to plan for, all that is lacking is the will to move the league in this direction.
There would be obvious benefits to the USMNT for the league to adopt this schedule. For one thing, it would be in line with leagues in the rest of the world so national team players in MLS would be in form for tournaments and friendlies played during normal international break periods. It would also eliminate a gap between October and March for players whose teams do not reach the MLS playoffs. Players like Paul Arriola and Kellyn Acosta, for example, who did not make the playoffs will have 146 days between competitive matches assuming MLS re-starts around the same time in March it did this season.
What’s more, there are reasons for MLS to adopt this system. The league will not be holding its playoffs while the World Series, college, and pro football are in full swing. What’s more, it is super hot in nearly every single part of the United States and even southern Canada all summer long. Nobody wants to go to Orlando and play a game that kicks off at 4PM in July. It would also ensure that teams will be more prepared for the CONCACAF Champions League, which starts for MLS teams in February, because there won’t be a huge gap between October, or even late November and early December, and March when teams from Mexico and elsewhere in the region are in mid-season form.
It is time to stop asking what are we doing. It’s time to start asking what are we going to do so that answers and solutions to these issues can be found and resolved.