On Saturday afternoon, D.C. United hosted FC Dallas for their fourth match in the Major League Soccer season. Well, most of D.C. United and a smattering of FC Dallas players.
Now normally when nine players are missing there are questions of an injury bug or about players physical fitness. But instead both sides were hit by the dreaded FIFA international window which for some reason Major League Soccer chooses to ignore.
It was not just D.C. and Dallas that were affected by MLS’ non-participation of this window. Of the six sides that participated in matches on Saturday 23 players were missing from their eighteen man roster. The full list is below:
|Tesho Akindele||FC Dallas||Canada||3||52||0|
|Marco Bustos||Vancouver Whitecaps||Canada U-23||0||0||0|
|Marco Carducci||Vancouver Whitecaps||Canada u-23||0||0||0|
|Cristian Bolanos||Vancouver Whitecaps||Costa Rica||2||180||0|
|Kendall Watson||Vancouver Whitecaps||Costa Rica||3||270||1|
|Ronald Mataritta||NYCFC||Costa Rica||3||270||0|
|Alvaro Saborio||D.C. United||Costa Rica||2||45||0|
|Moises Hernandez||FC Dallas||Guatemala||0||0||0|
|Maynor Figueroa||FC Dallas||Honduras||3||270||0|
|Oscar Boniek Garcia||Houston Dynamo||Honduras||3||180||0|
|Je-Vaughn Watson||New England Revolution||Jamaica||3||216||0|
|Jesse Gonzalez||FC Dallas||Mexico U-23||3||270||0|
|Erick Torres||Houston Dynamo||Mexico U-23||1||5||0|
|Blas Perez||Vancouver Whitecaps||Panama||3||137||0|
|Atiba Harris||FC Dallas||St. Kitts and Nevis||2||135||0|
|Steve Birnbaum||D.C. United||USA||3||270||0|
|Lee Nguyen||New England Revolution||USA||3||270||0|
|Kellyn Acosta||FC Dallas||USA U-23s||3||183||0|
|Tim Parker||Vancouver Whitecaps||USA U-23s||3||270||0|
|Khiry Shelton||NYCFC||USA U-23s||3||212||1|
|Walker Zimmerman||FC Dallas||USA U-23s||3||270||0|
While the 23 players have not necessarily contributed to the scoresheets for their respective sides (3) they have contributed a large number of minutes (3,775).
What is perhaps more telling is that eight of the players out on international duty played a full ninety minutes in all three matches (Watson, Matarrita, Figueroa, Gonzalez, Birnbaum, Diskerud, Nguyen, and Zimmerman).
The good news for FC Dallas and Vancouver Whitecaps supporters is that their sides ended up with three points. But if one is a D.C. United or a Houston Dynamo supporter there might be some hard feelings.
In particular with the United match Birnbaum’s replacement, Kofi Opare, played a role in allowing two of Dallas’ three goals. This is not necessarily a knock against Opare but more a knock against MLS for their inability to give each of their teams the greatest chance to succeed.
To put this in better perspective here were the other club leagues running on Saturday:one Liga MX match, English League One, English Conference, the Scottish Championship, Scottish League One and Two, the Spanish Segunda Division, Italia Serie B, League of Ireland Premier Division, one Australian A-League match, the Northern Ireland, and the first divisions of Paraguay, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.
So aside from one Liga MX match and arguably an A-League match there is little club competition of any note that would measure up against an MLS match.
There is a reason for this: most leagues are smart enough to realise there is no point to run against the FIFA international window.
So why does MLS schedule matches during the FIFA international window? In part the issue is a clash of schedules. While FIFA generally follows the European calendar, MLS has a summer schedule.
This clash has caused multiple conflicts for MLS not just including international breaks but also with the international transfer window.
It is even worse for the league’s image abroad that the second division of US Soccer, the North American Soccer League, does not schedule matches during the international window (Author’s Note: The NASL begins play in April).
The issue is further compounded by FIFA regulations which mandates that clubs release players during the international window. Teams cannot hold players from not participating in international matches.
So for a league where roster depth is often very thin it is very curious why they would go against FIFA’s interest.
One can empathize with MLS a bit since the league’s best attendance marks are in the spring and summer where competition against North America’s other four major sports is minimal.
The league’s average attendance (21,574) was larger than both the average attendance of a National Basketball Association (17, 856) and a National Hockey League (17, 502) match last season. Taking a weekend off and re-scheduling for the mid-week will likely hurt that figure and their average gate.
MLS, to their credit, also seem to understand that going against the international window should be avoided if at all possible. After years of being bullish on the subject, the league relented on playing any matches during the opening round of the 2014 World Cup.
They will also operate under a reduced schedule in June against the European Championships and the Copa America Centenario.
There has been some discussion in the North American soccer community of shifting to a winter schedule, which would closely align with the FIFA international breaks and the international transfer window.
Though this idea sounds good on paper it would mean that MLS would begin their schedule directly against the National Football League and that supporters would have to attend matches in Chicago, New England, and Toronto in the dead of winter.
While one might be willing to do that during a playoff run the idea of freezing sub-arctic temperatures for a random regular season match might not sound so tempting as opposed to a Bears match.
The answer to MLS’ scheduling woes seems to be to change the schedule to a schedule that closely resembles that of the Russian Premier League or the Scandinavian leagues.
Each of those leagues play a modified European schedule where the league kicks off in August, takes a three month break from December to March and then picks up again in March and goes through May.
Although MLS will have to still go against the NFL it puts them more on schedule with the rest of the footballing world.
It will allow their players the chance to go on international duty without having the fear of losing their jobs, gives MLS the chance to keep their vaunted weekend matches, and avoids most of the international cup competitions that generally occur in June and July.
Also, an unintended bonus would be that clubs can put more of an emphasis on the U.S. Open Cup a tournament that MLS sides barely feign an interest in.
No matter what the league chooses to do it is clear that the current method is not working. MLS teams are in a no-win situation right now going against FIFA.
By placing their matches directly opposing the international breaks they stigmatize the league as still being out of touch with the rest of the international footballing world.
Although it might mean a schedule change and a new way of thinking MLS and North America will benefit from the improved play.