Major League Soccer has a prime-time (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1) soccer match on Sunday between the Columbus Crew SC (41 points) and FC Dallas (41 Points) at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus. With Crew SC sitting third in the Eastern Conference and Dallas occupying third place in the Western Conference, it would normally be a decent matchup in front of a national television audience.
Both teams have begun to round into form for the final push into the postseason, with aspirations and ambitions of winning the MLS Cup.
There’s only one slight problem. Collectively, there will be 14 players not suiting up for the match. Columbus has nine players that have been called-up for their respective national teams, and Dallas is without the services of five of their players. Included in this list is the league’s top goal-scorer, Kei Kamara (18).
This highlights an underlying issue with what is keeping Major League Soccer from growing even larger and attracting more quality players from outside the United States. By continuing to schedule matches during international weeks, the league will see a tapering off of the high-quality players it covets to play in MLS.
This was not an issue in previous years when MLS was still attempting to attract talent from overseas. But now, with all of the talent that is making the jump to MLS, the scheduling conflict is robbing MLS of 77 players representing 24 countries’ national team squads, to include both U-23’s and U-20’s.
While MLS is aware of this issue and have taken steps to schedule only half of the league (10 teams) to play this weekend, it begs the question of whether they have now reached a crossroads. Twenty years in and MLS is attracting larger numbers of players than ever before that have ongoing international careers. Their absence is creating a larger problem for the league.
Montreal Impact’s interim head coach Mauro Biello told The Guardian, “In this league, the quality of players is increasing more and more and you’re going to see a lot more international players. At some point, a decision will have to be made, because other teams are going to lose four, five, six players. And it’s even more of a problem now, with teams fighting for playoff spots. It definitely complicates matters.”
As is well-known, MLS vehemently oppose a switch to the FIFA calendar. The logistics of such a move, with snow blanketing numerous teams’ fields in the wintertime, have yet to gain any sort of traction. The league also wants to keep the number of mid-week matches to a minimum, in order to maximize revenue.
As expected, the league is espousing the positives of having so many of their players called-up for national team duty. And yes, this is a feather in the cap of Major League Soccer. But, what is to preclude the specter of 80, 90 or 100 players called-up? Would a team scheduled to play that week be able to dress enough players in the event that 10 or more are away?
As it stands, MLS has 34 games scheduled for each of the 20 teams throughout the regular season. This year, play began March 6 and will conclude on October 25. The playoffs start October 28, with the MLS Cup being awarded in December. At 10 months, this makes MLS the global leader in length of season.
Paring back the number of regular season games played would seem, from a league standpoint, to be a nonstarter. With no adaptation of the FIFA calendar on the horizon, that really only leaves one choice for MLS to observe international breaks and continue generating revenue without reducing the number of games played.
By playing more mid-week games, they can accommodate the expected rise of national team call-ups from their league as more international players choose to ply their trade in MLS. And while the league doesn’t want to give up money by having a few less weekend games, the old adage still holds true. It is better to get something, rather than nothing.
By having more quality players participating in MLS, while at the same time adjusting the schedule, they will see the benefit of growing ticket sales and viewership. At the end of the day, how can that be a bad thing?