By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (May 17, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Like most in his position, Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena would love to have it both ways. If the world of Major League Soccer would just operate reasonably, things would work so much better. If, for example, the League calendar played through international breaks like the old days. That would save multiple clubs from what amounts to an early season break with the new unbalanced schedule. It would also spare MLS teams the odd road trip, or no road trips at all.
Arena's team was in DC earlier this week, but not to play. The Galaxy have no away date with United during the 2012 regular season. Instead, they made the trip to celebrate last year's championship at the White House. Then it was back to LA to play as the away team in their stadium against Chivas USA this Sunday, San Jose at home on the 23rd, and then Houston away on the 26th. After they finish their business at BBVA Compass Stadium, LA will wait until June 17th before playing their next League game.
Speaking to The Washington Post's Steven Goff on Monday, Arena called the scheduling “a bit odd." That comment referred to the League’s practice of squeezing several games into short windows to allow it to take off for international breaks. Since playing through international windows is one of the long-term criticisms of MLS scheduling, it's - excuse the phrase - a bit odd for Arena to voice a complaint.
If Arena was forced to deal with a stretch of games without Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, and perhaps others, his tune wouldn’t be the same. Points dropped by the Galaxy during the absences of two of the team’s most important players would make for a very annoyed head coach. After dealing with the issue for so many years in MLS, why would Arena question what most would call an obvious improvement?
Maybe it has to do with the Galaxy's record. LA is struggling through a poor start that is now complicated by the compressed nature of their schedule. It's not lost on Arena what this season's mostly home dates against Eastern teams means for 2013. Unless something changes, the Galaxy will be playing DC and several other teams on the road. Putting the 'un' in unbalanced, that's how the MLS schedule works now and every team has had to adjust accordingly.
A quick scan of the overall calendar shows more than a few teams that will benefit from breaks for the international dates. New York’s travails with Rafa Marquez notwithstanding, Hans Backe would certainly rather have his star than not. Dane Richards, Roy Miller, and Joel Lindpere might all miss games if New York played on FIFA dates. In DC, United could lose Andy Najar, Dejan Jakovic, Dwayne De Rosario and an American or two to international call-ups depending on the situation. Sporting Kansas City would likely lose Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara, two first choice stalwarts. Chicago has several internationals, as do Houston.
The timing of various international obligations (friendlies, qualifiers, etc.), deep enough into the MLS season that fatigue and injury have become a factor for many teams, only exacerbates the League’s problems keeping its best product on the field. Compressing the schedule to avoid internationals dates is trading one problem for another, but it’s trading that long-standing grievance among soccer fans for a slightly less distasteful issue. Of course coaches, being coaches, will find fault. They’re programmed to find reasons to claim that their team is at a disadvantage. That doesn't make Arena wrong, it just makes his case weaker.
Of course, this raises another old issue - depth in MLS. Depth will be a problem across the League until such time as teams have budgets capable of carrying the weight of good players sitting behind better ones. Depth is stretched by multiple games in small windows of the schedule. Yet there's a difference between playing backups due to injury or fatigue and playing them because the club’s strongest players are away with their national teams and the League refuses to adjust the schedule.
While many of the League’s marquee names are no longer part of their national team setups, the real strength of MLS is built on less glamorous players from CONCACAF and elsewhere. It’s when those players go away that the quality of play on the field takes a clear step backward, and when the quality of the competition - at least for that window of time - comes into question.
There is no perfect answer to the MLS schedule conundrum. It’s very possible the League could have done better in 2012 as it shifted from a balanced scheduled (a message board favorite) to an unbalanced, conference-focused one. Varied considerations on everything from travel to TV combined with that unbalancing have made the schedule an easy target for complaints. For all that the League apparently got wrong this season, moving out of the way of international soccer was one thing it got right.
Ultimately, avoiding FIFA dates will benefit the League in the future as it tries to attract a higher-caliber of player, both domestic and international. Bruce Arena knows this, but his concern is for what's happening right now. There’s pressure in the best of times, and right now the Galaxy is working through a series of unexpected problems. With all due respect to Arena, the calendar isn't the major one. For this League, putting (almost) everything on hold during the international breaks is the right way to move forward.
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