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MLS ruining its own product by playing crucial matches during international window

Friday 6th October 2017
MLS' refusal to respect FIFA's calendar by playing through international breaks may be rude, arrogant, and greedy. More importantly, it's suicidal.

Major League Soccer is doing the same thing they did long before Donald Trump was elected: ignoring the rest of the world to focus on its own agenda. Even though the United States is engaged in a critical international break with its World Cup hopes still unrealized and has therefore summoned the best players available, club competition continues as though sides in the thick of the playoff hunt have all hands on deck.

USMNT manager Bruce Arena called on 26 players for the two matches against Panama and Trinidad. Seventeen compete in MLS. Of those, only goalkeeper Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids) and midfielder Paul Arriola (DC United) play for franchises officially eliminated from playoff contention. Their teams will not be sweating their absence at all.

Toronto FC has wrapped up the regular season's Supporters Shield and home advantage throughout the playoffs. TFC doesn't even play during this international break. Nonetheless, the club will not be thrilled if anything happens to either striker Jozy Altidore or captain Michael Bradley.
Sporting KC, meanwhile, has two matches away during the break, with its playoff position in doubt. At the moment, SKC is in a three-team deadlock for second place in the West. If the Wizards finish below that slot, they will have to play a one-off match to qualify for the playoffs proper. Worse, they must do so without three key American players: Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Benny Feilhaber. Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas will also be playing matches with playoff implications while missing DeMarcus Beasley and Kellyn Acosta respectively.

Beyond unavailable Americans, Sporting will also be without four other players summoned by their countries, Soni Mustivar and James Musa merely for friendlies. Houston will miss four players, as well, albeit all are involved in World Cup qualifiers. FC Dallas will be without its defensive anchor, Maynor Figueroa, who represents Honduras.
New York Red Bulls sit comfortably, though not securely, on the East's final playoff spot. They will miss Panamanians Michael Murillo and Fidel Escobar for a key match against Western Conference-leading Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday. Derek Etienne will also be elsewhere, summoned by Haiti, already eliminated from World Cup contention, to play a meaningless friendly.

For their part, Whitecaps have a four-point edge and a game in hand on all pursuers save SKC and Houston. Thus they will be able to cope without the four players who have jetted off to New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Peru. In fact, it works well for the western Canadian side that the one team with a game in hand on it, SKC, must play two games without seven first-team members, and the other rival with three games remaining on its schedule, Houston, is without five.
Major League Soccer has been building up its quality with excruciating patience. It is not yet near its ultimate goal: to rival elite European competitions. It has yet to surpass Liga MX for regional supremacy. All that said, play is significantly better than it was heading into the last World Cup.

As the league continues to progress, however, it must also attract new fans who either prefer American, European, or Latin American football, to its game. How can it do so while its stretch run is disrupted, be it by players called up to national teams while the league blithely carries on, or should it choose to halt play three times, in September, October, and November, just as momentum is picking up?

It's an unacceptable situation for fans, whether or not the league realizes it. In truth, MLS should be wholly aware it has a serious problem. How it can expect some teams to play crucial matches at far less than full strength while promoting a quality product is simply audacious.
Regional climate rules out switching to a European schedule without a winter break of similar length to the Russian Premier League's. Taking two or three months off in mid-season will kill interest just as much as the current situation. Adopting bookended apertura/clausura mini-seasons likely wouldn't go over well with fans used to American-style competitions. For the same reason, neither would abandoning the playoff system itself.

At the writing, Major League Baseball has begun its postseason. MLS begins its regular season a month before baseball. Why it needs two months more to stage 34 match days compared to MLB's 162 is another mystery. The simple answer is to wrap up the MLS regular season by October, if not sooner, play the three playoff rounds between the October and November international windows, then stage the MLS Cup immediately following the latter.

In this manner, the important players are available for every important match, barring injury. As it stands, Sporting Kansas City's B team will fight for the franchise's playoff life this week while better than half its first team is otherwise occupied. Yet, American soccer football fans are expected to take MLS seriously. Please.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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