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By deciding to play on during a FIFA break, MLS further undermines its own season

Although most pro soccer leagues are pausing during an international window, MLS will march on with a full slate of 14 matches Saturday. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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MLS does not seem to care much about its own regular season.

What other conclusion can be drawn from three decisions that have drained, interrupted and cheapened the 7½-month campaign?

All around the world this week, pro soccer leagues are on break amid a nine-day window set aside by FIFA, the sport’s governing body, for international matches. Players have reported to national teams for 2024 European Championship qualifiers and Concacaf Nations League games, among others.

MLS, though, will march on with a full slate of 14 matches Saturday. International games? What international games?

Because it’s an official window, clubs are obligated to release players. So when Orlando City visits the Philadelphia Union, each side will be without seven players, including six starters combined.

Minnesota United will be down six starters against the Vancouver Whitecaps, who lost just two players. The Atlanta United-Columbus Crew match will have five absent starters.

The only unaffected teams are Nashville SC (no call-ups) and CF Montreal (two call-ups but no game).

“Games that are scheduled over international breaks create problems,” Toronto FC Coach Bob Bradley told Canadian journalist John Molinaro. “Our international players shake their heads and look at us like: ‘How is this possible? This wouldn’t happen anywhere else.’ ”

Toronto released three starters and a key sub to the Canadian national team ahead of playing this weekend at San Jose, which lost two players.

D.C. United was not hit hard: Part-time starter Victor Palsson joined the Icelandic national team, and substitute Kristian Fletcher is with the U.S. under-19 national team. Its opponent, the New England Revolution, will arrive in Washington without starting forward Dylan Borrero (Colombia).

About 90 MLS players were called for international duty, most notably Atlanta’s Thiago Almada, who has rejoined Argentina for the first time since being part of the World Cup championship team, and Los Angeles FC’s Dénis Bouanga (five goals, two assists in five games across all competitions) for Gabon.

That total is not as bad as it seems because 23 players, most of whom don’t play much if at all, reported to junior national teams. The league did catch a break when the U.S. national team selected just one MLS player, Atlanta center back Miles Robinson.

Interest in its players is a point of pride for MLS and indicative of rising standards in the 27-year-old circuit. As money has flowed, the league has gotten better.

But “one of the risks is you might lose [high-caliber players] for a few games throughout the year” because of scheduling conflicts, said Pete Shuttleworth, a D.C. United assistant who accompanied Coach Wayne Rooney from England last summer. “It's definitely different to what we've had in England where the league shuts down.”

Players are left in a tight spot. They have the right to turn down a call-up, but doing so threatens to damage their national team standing. Missing a league game could leave them vulnerable to losing a starting job.

As much as a club would like a player to stay behind, “I know what playing for England meant to me and I would never stop the players from representing their country,” Minnesota Coach Adrian Heath told reporters at a thinned-out training session Tuesday. “It’s something we should be proud of, but when you are losing six, seven starters, it’s not ideal.”

MLS will not shut down for windows in June and September, either, though it did lighten the schedule. The league will go dark for the October and November windows — the first falls immediately after the regular season ends, and the second is between the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Though it has never fully complied with international protocol, MLS was more cognizant in 2022, a World Cup year. Not so much this year.

Playing during the windows is necessary to navigate a tight calendar, league officials say. There are only so many weekends available for each team to play 34 matches, and weeknights are avoided because of attendance challenges in some markets.

MLS also must be mindful of the Concacaf Champions League and the U.S. Open Cup, which are conducted on weeknights.

The main scheduling culprit this year, though, is the Leagues Cup, a competition involving all 29 MLS teams and 18 Liga MX clubs. From mid-July to mid-August, dates typically set aside for the regular season will be used for the tournament’s 77 games.

In other words, the league is playing during international windows to help create a long window for its own international tournament, one devised in large part to make gains with soccer fans in Mexico and Mexican American circles.

MLS also devalued the regular season this year by expanding the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs: nine from each conference (62 percent of the league). Only the NBA (67 percent) is higher. Last year, there were seven per MLS conference; had it been nine, Charlotte’s 13-18-3 record would have been good enough.

In making the case for expanded playoffs, MLS cites the drama created by tight races for the last slots. Given MLS’s parity, though, that would have been the case no matter how many places were up for grabs.

As the degree of difficulty of qualifying for the playoffs falls, so, too, does the importance of regular season matches. Back-to-back victories are all it takes to lift a struggling team back into contention.

Toss in MLS’s position on the international windows and its prioritizing the Leagues Cup, and it would be fair to wonder what incentives are left for fans to care about a Colorado-Houston midseason match.

“When people pay their money, you want to put the best product on the field,” Heath said. “This weekend, unfortunately, that’s not going to be the case.”