College soccer has had to adapt, too, inviting a temporary solution that many hope will lead to permanent changes.
The year typically starts with winter camps for the senior national teams in California, but because of tighter health restrictions there, the men and women will train in separate cities in Florida starting this weekend.
The men’s team, made up mostly of MLS players, will be joined in Bradenton by the under-23 squad, which, after a year’s delay, will attempt to qualify for the Olympics this spring.
When camps wind down, several U-23 players will join the senior roster for a friendly, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 31 in Orlando against Serbia.
Under normal circumstances, the senior men by now would have been deep into the qualifying competition for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and Coach Gregg Berhalter would have all but settled on his primary charges. Instead, the one-year delay to the start of the regional campaign has offered additional time to evaluate a young player pool and expand roster depth — vital elements in what will be a compressed match schedule.
Between early September and mid-November, the Americans will play eight qualifiers. Typically, they would play six. Things will rev up again in early 2022 to determine three automatic berths (from a field of eight teams instead of six) in Qatar.
With European-based players largely unavailable this month, Berhalter’s next session with his full squad is in late March for two friendlies in Europe. A backlogged global schedule, however, leaves few available opponents for a projected roster of Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and several others employed by prominent clubs.
Jason Kreis will assemble the under-23s for the first time since March. Failure to qualify for the Olympics in three of the past four attempts has been a source of embarrassment and has raised the importance of advancing this March in Mexico.
If the Americans qualify, Berhalter and Kreis will need to coordinate call-ups between the squads this summer. With so many young players starring for the senior team, that’s not as straightforward as it seems.
Meanwhile, the U.S. women are aiming to win a fifth Olympic gold medal. Unlike the men, there are no age restrictions, and the World Cup champions breezed through Olympic qualifying last year.
The first serious tuneup is tentatively scheduled for late February in the fifth annual SheBelieves Cup, which will include Brazil, Japan and Canada.
Had the Olympics taken place last summer, veterans such as Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd probably would have had their swan songs. Instead, Lloyd (who turns 39 in July) and Rapinoe (36 in July) could end up taking roster slots that otherwise would have gone to younger players ramping up for the 2023 World Cup.
Ahead of his first major tournament as coach, Vlatko Andonovski will need to decide whether to stick with tried-and-true players or further integrate newcomers.
MLS does not know when its 26th season will commence. The best-case scenario is mid-March, a few weeks later than normal. Training camps are supposed to open six weeks before the openers.
However, facing another year of massive losses, the league wants to modify the collective bargaining agreement, which already had been adjusted last summer amid financial difficulties. Predictably, this is not going over well with the players.
Without lucrative national TV deals, MLS relies heavily on game-day revenue. And with no prospects of fully opened stadiums in the foreseeable future, the league believes the players must share in the sacrifice. Failure to amend the CBA is likely to put a hold on everything.
The sense is MLS will seek some concessions from the players while delaying the start of the season deeper into the spring, thus allowing for an improved health climate and larger crowds.
The league can’t push back the start too far, though. Soccer competitions are intertwined, and the league must set aside dates for national team matches and other events.
The NWSL has firmer plans: Open training camps Feb. 1, conduct a tournament in bubble settings in April, and start the regular season in May.
However, a young league dependent on U.S. stars to draw attention might have to start without several. Because last season was downsized, five regulars signed with English clubs to play regularly.
Alex Morgan recently returned stateside, but Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis, Christen Press and Tobin Heath remain abroad. It’s unclear whether any will rejoin the NWSL this year. Morgan on Tuesday tweeted that she had recently contracted the coronavirus. “We are all in good spirits and recovering well,” she wrote on Twitter.
College soccer is typically a fall sport, but because most programs paused and the NCAA postponed the national tournaments, the season will take place in the spring.
For years, Maryland men’s coach Sasho Cirovski has led the charge to spread the season over the fall and spring semesters. This adjustment might help bolster his campaign.
Cirovski is cautiously optimistic, which is also the best way to describe the mind-set of most everyone in American soccer entering an uncommon year.
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