Moving U.S. Soccer To The FIFA Calendar

Written by Ian Thomson

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber gave a strong hint during his State of the League address last December that moves are afoot to adopt FIFA’s traditional soccer calendar in the United States.

Adverse winter weather in northern cities and reduced competition from other major sports during summer are often cited as reasons for maintaining the status quo. Yet the potential sporting benefits from synchronization with FIFA’s schedule outweigh those concerns.

High-profile American players such as Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan will miss at least three MLS games this summer despite the league’s hiatus during the World Cup’s group stage. Pre-tournament preparations will likely curtail their domestic commitments before the end of May.

Bradley’s Toronto F.C. returns to action at New York Red Bulls on June 27 – the day after the USA’s final group game against Germany in Recife. The Reds could potentially be without their $10 million midfielder until mid-July should the U.S. make a run to the quarter-final stage.

CONCACAF’s Gold Cup tournament poses similar biennial problems for MLS. San Jose Earthquakes were shorn of 2012 Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski for four games last July due to his involvement with Jurgen Klinsmann’s national team.

Moving to an August-to-May schedule would prevent MLS from losing its top players for a chunk of the season during these summer tournaments and also during other dates scheduled for international qualifiers and friendlies. That gives greater value for money to fans from Buck Shaw Stadium to BMO Field.

Marquee Misfires

A change would also allow marquee signings from Europe to fully recover before joining their new franchises. Dempsey, David Beckham, Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry all turned in a series of disappointing performances after arriving in MLS without a proper pre-season regimen.

MLS’ expansion along with an increasing willingness of league executives to honor international dates has stretched the season from early March until early in December. The showpiece MLS Cup Final has consequently been staged amid frigid temperatures in Toronto and Kansas City in the past four years.

Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake players were forced to navigate a frozen 18-yard box at one end of Sporting Park during last season’s championship decider – a game that produced the thrills of a prolonged penalty shootout if barely any quality during its 120 minutes.

Switching the season’s playoff games to May should encourage more enjoyable fare on the field and provide a championship decider that shows the league in a better light to domestic and foreign audiences.

Conquering CONCACAF

The benefits extend beyond America’s domestic leagues. Hopes of sending a representative to FIFA’s Club World Cup would be enhanced if MLS teams were not thrown into the CONCACAF Champions League’s quarter-finals so early in the season.

MLS sides have lost eight of nine ties against Mexican opponents in the continental tournament’s knockout stages since its format changes in the 2008-09 season. Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders and Toronto have suffered blowout losses when pitted against Liga MX sides in the spring.

Real Salt Lake is the only non-Mexican team to reach the CONCACAF final before falling short against Monterrey in 2011. Three American teams face Mexican opponents in next month’s quarter-finals with the first legs taking place in the midweek after the first weekend of the new MLS season.

Scheduling Difficulties

Commissioner Garber stated during his State of the League address that a “comprehensive process” had been undertaken last year to consider whether MLS could shift to the FIFA calendar. Incorporating a suitable winter break is a sticking point that the league continues to evaluate.

“We’re not playing in Toronto or Vancouver in January,” Garber said.

There is no need to do so, ignoring the fact that Vancouver’s B.C. Place contains a retractable roof in any case.

The 2014 MLS schedule sees each team’s 34 league games played over 32 weekends with a handful of midweek encounters spread across the season. Games are currently planned during FIFA’s international windows in September and October. The playoffs also clash with mid-November’s international date – a circumstance that destroyed momentum midway through last year’s Eastern and Western Conference Finals.

MLS could potentially start its season on the first weekend in August and play on 18 of the 21 weekends before Christmas Day while honoring the three international weeks.  Thirteen further weekends from the start of February until the end of April could lead into the playoffs in May. This alternative incorporates a winter break over the festive period and throughout January.

Montreal’s average high temperature in December is 29 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Weather.com, with February falling to 26 degrees. Toronto and Chicago are also problematic with highs hovering around freezing in those months. There are plenty of “warm-weather” locations in MLS to allow the league’s schedulers to send those teams on two- or three-game road trips either side of the break with offsetting home stands in the fall and spring.

Boston, New York, Philadelphia, D.C., Columbus, Kansas City, Denver and Salt Lake City reach average highs in the 40s during December and February. Sports fans in those cities habitually brave the cold for up to four hours to cheer on their NFL and college football teams.

Devoted soccer fans are surely capable of donning a winter coat, hat and gloves for half of that time to see the occasional afternoon game.

David Beckham’s decision to exercise his MLS franchise option in Miami adds another amenable location to the schedule. Possible expansion to Atlanta and San Antonio only furthers the ability to work around adverse northern conditions.

Competition From Other Sports

It is often remarked that MLS would face tougher competition from the NFL, basketball, hockey and college football if it moved away from the summer when only Major League Baseball is active among America’s major sports.

The argument presupposes that sports fans will ignore soccer in favor of America’s traditional major leagues. What percentage of that population would pay attention to MLS whether those other leagues were in season or not?

There will always be competition for the entertainment dollar regardless of when the soccer season takes place. Baseball may well be the only other major league operating in July and August. Those months are also more likely to conflict with vacation plans and other outdoor events held in summer.

Stiff competition from other sports exists in any case. The MLS playoff race and season finale currently conflicts with the NFL and college football. Basketball and hockey start in October as MLS is reaching its post-season. The NBA and the NHL stage their playoffs in May and June when the MLS regular season is hitting its stride.

Soccer fans are surely more likely to keep watching their teams through the winter months rather than switching over to other sports.

Altering the Soccer Schedule Across the U.S. Soccer Pyramid

Changing the calendar in the U.S. is a step that would affect all levels of the soccer landscape.

The second-tier North American Soccer League already operates a split-schedule format. Its spring season could be brought forward from an April start to line up more effectively with FIFA’s summer break.

MLS’ deepening partnership with the United Soccer Leagues would put more pressure on the third-tier USL PRO schedule to adopt a switch.

“Any major changes to the MLS competition calendar would be taken into consideration by the USL PRO Board of Governors,” United Soccer Leagues operations director David Wagner told The Soccer Observer.

College soccer has its own issues to address to enhance the development of the American game. Moving away from a summer schedule is not among them with games being played during the academic year.

The timing of the MLS SuperDraft in mid-January does not necessarily require adjusting either. Draftees could join their professional teams ahead of the season recommencing in February.