Winter weather a huge obstacle to MLS conforming to FIFA calendar

Red Bull Arena during 2012 playoffs. (By Steven Goff -- The Washington Post)
Red Bull Arena during 2012 playoffs. (By Steven Goff — The Washington Post)

An ice-sleet-snow storm is sweeping through the South and up the Eastern seaboard this week.

What better time to discuss MLS conforming to the FIFA calendar.

Proponents say MLS should embrace the standard international schedule from mid-August through mid-May in order to avoid conflicts with international competition in the summer, to align with almost all other leagues and to fully embrace the winter and summer transfer windows.

Opponents can point to this:

Toronto: 27 degrees.

Montreal: 26 degrees.

Foxborough, Mass.: 5-8 inches of snow, 20-30 mph wind, 37 degrees.

Harrison, N.J.: 3-6 inches of snow, wintry mix, 20-30 mph wind, 35 degrees.

Chester, Pa.: 1-2 inches of snow, wintry mix, 15-25 mph wind, 36 degrees.

Washington: 2-4 inches of snow, wintry mix, 15-25 mph wind, 35 degrees.

Columbus: 36 degrees.

Bridgeview, Ill.: 31 degrees, 40 percent chance of snow.

Kansas City: 42 degrees (after weeks of brutal cold).

Denver and Salt Lake City are warmer than usual.

Those are Thursday’s forecasts with the high daytime temperature.  And we’re not talking about a Thursday in early January. We’re already in mid-February — beyond a winter break period utilized by, for instance, the German Bundesliga.

It is just a snapshot. On this date next year, we could be enjoying 54 degrees and sunshine in the nation’s capital. The problem is not the weather on a specific day; it’s the unpredictability. How do you schedule matches when the threat of a storm or deep freeze looms?

Lousy weather doesn’t just impact the playing surface. It affects training grounds over a long period, as well as supporters and stadium workers navigating roads and parking lots. It dissuades casual fans from purchasing tickets on matchday and impacts air travel: 52,000 flights have been cancelled in the past six weeks.

Warm-weather teams, such as Los Angeles, would enjoy training advantages. Does MLS need to tilt the rules even more in the Galaxy’s favor? (I’m kidding, Bruce, I’m kidding.)

In much of the nation, the heart of winter is no time to stage outdoor sporting events. Some point to the NHL’s outdoor games. Those are one-off special events, a celebration of a cold-weather sport. Soccer is, for the most part, a temperate-weather sport. Cool conditions are fine. Snowflakes are acceptable. But as the Ticos will attest, playing in blizzard conditions in Denver — in March — is not soccer. MLS Cup ’13 in frigid temperatures in Kansas in December was no picnic either.

Matches in summer’s heat and humidity (plus dangerous thunderstorms) pose their own set of problems — not optimal conditions for players or supporters but manageable by avoiding afternoon kickoff times.

MLS has taken a serious look at shifting to the FIFA calendar, but as Commissioner Don Garber explained, “We have not been able to figure out a way to solve the break and also figure out a way to justify moving those games from the very valuable May and June time period into February and end of December. We will continue to look at it, but it’s not something we’re going to do in the short term.”

Is there a solution?

MLS could play until early December by scheduling as many games as logistically possible in southern venues, plus the tolerable Pacific Northwest and Vancouver (retractable roof). Orlando provides an option upon entry in 2015; Miami is in the near future as well, if a stadium deal is reached. Toronto and Montreal have utilized domed arenas on occasion, but that means synthetic turf instead of grass.

The same formula could be applied when play resumes in February. Again, though, the unpredictable weather impacts more than just the playing surface.

The longer the winter break, the more time clubs will need to regain fitness and form for the “second half” of the season. Florida and Arizona serve as training sites. Perhaps Bundesliga clubs could be persuaded to visit during their own five-week break instead of heading to the Middle East and other warm settings.

So it’s not out of the realm of possibility. But it’s not nearly as straightforward as FIFA boss Sepp Blatter believes.

Until then, happy shoveling.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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