Major League Soccer released its 2019 schedule this week and, as usual, it doesn’t follow the same calendar as most of the other soccer leagues around the world. American soccer has always been different that way. But as the league increasingly becomes part of the global soccer landscape, it should consider changing its schedule to match.
The two things that put the most pressure on the MLS schedule-makers are the harsh winter in Canada and the northern United States, and the league’s unrelenting desire to have playoffs at the end of the year. There’s no fixing the weather, of course, and there’s no way to convince the league to drop its marquee postseason matchups. Not when they’re the most-viewed games of the year.
Given this, MLS is trying to squeeze a 34-game schedule into a 31-week period, between the beginning of March and the beginning of the playoffs in mid-October. The schedule is further constrained by big international tournaments in the summer.
For example, this year both the Gold Cup and the Copa América run from mid-June through early July, meaning that some of the league’s biggest stars will be away for nearly a month, playing for their countries instead of their clubs. MLS doesn’t break for the span of the tournaments, nor for the FIFA-mandated international breaks in March and September, because doing so would eliminate another six weeks from the already-compressed timeline.
Perhaps the easiest way to avoid this problem would be to move to the same type of schedule that prevails in Mexico. Liga MX plays two half-seasons, one in the fall and one in the spring, with playoffs after each half. This would satisfy TV networks — twice as many playoffs! — while allowing for more natural summer and winter breaks between seasons.
Given that MLS and Liga MX are increasingly aligning themselves, not only with the CONCACAF Champions League but in other ways as well, it might make sense for MLS to get itself on Mexican time. The biggest problem might come from working out the timing of the breaks; the worst of winter in the USA doesn’t fade until March, at least, which would leave only three months before the June tournaments.
Another potential change would see MLS move to a fall-to-spring yearly schedule, with a winter break in the middle. Such pauses are fairly common in European soccer, with breaks anywhere from three weeks (Germany) to nearly three months (Russia, Ukraine). This would better align the league with big European leagues, and allow a break for tournaments in the summer.
When MLS plays on during showpiece summer tournaments and other international breaks, the league feels small-time, like some other country’s second division. Better to expand the schedule, and even move to a half-and-half solution like Mexico. And push more games to southern cities in spring and fall, and more to northern cities in the summer, in the hopes of moderating the effects of extreme temperatures in either half of the country.
MLS hasn’t budged on this in more than two decades of it being a problem. As the league continues to grow, and continues to link up more and more with leagues elsewhere, though, its hand may be forced.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• The Chicago Red Stars selected Stanford defender Tierna Davidson (above) with the first pick Thursday in the National Women’s Soccer League draft. The pick is slightly out of the ordinary, given that Davidson, a college junior, is already a starter with the U.S. women’s national team.
• One of the ongoing subplots of the draft was whether anyone wants to play for Sky Blue FC. The New Jersey-based club was widely criticized for substandard facilities and treatment of its players last season. Sky Blue selected Hailie Mace from UCLA with the second pick and Julia Ashley of North Carolina with the sixth. But a report by Dan Lauletta at EqualizerSoccer.com indicated that Mace has already told the team she won’t play there and that Ashley is considering going overseas instead.
• The only Gopher selected in the NWSL draft was forward April Bockin, who went in the fourth round, 31st overall, to Chicago. Bockin, the Big Ten Forward of the Year and a third-team All-America this year, may have a better chance to make the Chicago roster than she might have in years past. Not only are league rosters expanding from 20 to 22 players this year, Chicago also will lose all-world striker Sam Kerr to the Australia national team during the World Cup this summer, which may give them an extra incentive to keep Bockin.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Manchester United at Tottenham, 10:30 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Unshackled from Jose Mourinho’s final half-season reign of terror, Manchester United has four consecutive league victories, by a combined score of 14-3. The Red Devils have even climbed back into the race for the top four. Can the Spurs, a team that still harbors dreams of competing for the title, let some air out of United’s balloon?