Major League Soccer is immensely proud that 39 of its players representing 15 countries were summoned for international assignments this week. They are scattered from the Middle East and West Africa to Scandinavia and the Caribbean, representing both their homelands and their young pro league.
MLS clubs are also happy for their players but understandably restrained in their enthusiasm. While most leagues around the world shut down during official competition periods, MLS plays on, creating hardships for its teams.
As D.C. United prepares to face the Columbus Crew on Saturday afternoon at RFK Stadium, starting defender Dejan Jakovic is in Qatar with the Canadian national team for a pair of friendlies and reserve midfielder Marcos Sanchez is on Panamanian duty for World Cup qualifiers. Crew forward Jairo Arrieta will be in Denver recovering from Costa Rica’s qualifier Friday night against the United States.
Three of 19 MLS clubs are off this weekend and two active teams — the Colorado Rapids and Chivas USA — are not impacted by call-ups. For all others, though, their rosters are incomplete. Real Salt Lake, which visits FC Dallas on Saturday night, was hardest hit with five absences, including three U.S. national team players. Dallas lost three to three different national teams.
FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, set aside five periods this year for official competitions, such as World Cup qualifiers. During these times, teams are required to release players requested by their country.
Why doesn’t MLS take the weekend off to avoid conflicts, like the English Premier League and others do?
Skipping some weekends, league officials say, would push more matches to weeknights, when MLS games draw smaller crowds. They claim it would also lengthen the season, which is already at a league-record nine months and one week (opening day was March 2 and MLS Cup will be Dec. 7 or 8).
“It’s just a massive matrix that is really difficult to manage, bordering on impossible,” Commissioner Don Garber said of the league’s calendar, which must also take into account outside competitions involving MLS teams, such as the CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup. “We are getting better. We’re more focused on it.”
MLS has proposed creating a three-year schedule to avoid some FIFA dates, Garber said, but that would require cooperation from all teams and stadiums.
The league has provided more flexibility this season: Teams anticipating call-ups at a certain point of the year were able to request a specific weekend off.
United, for instance, will take a break in mid-July, when it expects several players to go on duty for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which features national teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean. United’s roster includes three Canadians and at least two U.S. candidates, plus Panama’s Sanchez.
“It’s something we plan for,” United General Manager Dave Kasper said. “We knew when we built the team, depth would be important.”
Short-term absences also offer long-term benefits, Kasper said, because although “we don’t want to lose Dejan, it’s a good opportunity for his growth as a player.”
Despite being eliminated from World Cup contention last fall, Canada is preparing for this summer’s Gold Cup. And although games against Japan on Friday night and Belarus on Monday are friendlies, they fall during FIFA’s official window.
It could have been much worse for United, but Canada did not request captain Dwayne De Rosario and reserve midfielder Kyle Porter.
The fact that MLS’s schedule (March to December) doesn’t match the traditional European league time frame (August to May) is also problematic. In June, when World Cup qualifiers are scheduled, most leagues are on summer break. MLS, meantime, is in the heart of its season.
As for United’s game Saturday, Daniel Woolard and Robbie Russell, natural outside backs, are the leading candidates to fill in for Jakovic in central defense. Rookie Ryan Finley is pegged to replace Arrieta on the Crew’s front line.