As part of his second state of the union at halftime of the MLS Cup, Don Garber revealed that MLS would be considering shifting the season from spring-to-fall to the FIFA-endorsed fall-to-spring schedule. While this is not the first time MLS has considered shifting its schedule, Garber said that the rethink was pushed by FIFA and was tied into the U.S. World Cup bid. It’s no secret that FIFA has long been disappointed that MLS is not in-sync with most of the rest of the soccer world and they have pressured MLS to conform to everyone else. But if FIFA gives the U.S. an ultimatum to change the schedule or else, the US stand up to FIFA and tell them no.
This scenario is not out of the realm of possibility. In 1994, FIFA made establishing a permanent outdoor league a contingency for hosting. While I think the U.S. right now is the leader in the 2022 race, if it is close or becomes close in the next week, the scheduling issue could become a pressure point for the U.S. FIFA conceivably come to the U.S. and say change the schedule or enjoy the Qatar World Cup.
So if it comes down to scheduling, should the US abandon its spring-to-fall schedule for the World Cup? No, MLS and U.S. Soccer should stand its ground on this one if it needs to. The arguments for spring-to-fall are well-known and they are incredibly valid. The MLS should not open its season overshadowed by all four major U.S. sports and crown its champions overshadowed by the beginning of baseball and the NCAA basketball championship. In addition, the majority of the season would be played in the winter, which would be miserable for most teams north of Kansas City. Having the MLS mainly in the summer allows American soccer to receive more attention from the media, especially when its only major competition is baseball.
Moving to a FIFA-approved schedule would fundamentally alter the essence of MLS. Immediately American soccer would be another soccer league competing directly with other international leagues, and if ESPN/FSC numbers are any indication, that’s a losing proposition. Everyone but the most hardcore MLS fans would ignore the league. And as anyone who watches Sportscenter knows, which honestly and unfortunately dictates the American sports conversation, September through February is all NFL. Any hope of standing out and attracting attention from the casual sports fan is lost, and MLS would have to hope to attract European soccer fans. But with their own leagues running concurrently, that is another losing proposition.
Lost amid other American sports and other leagues, MLS would simply be a niche sport like Major League Lacrosse. And the ability to attract big-name international stars would decrease. Think it’s a hard decision for Landon Donovan now to play in the EPL? Imagine if he had to choose between Everton and the Galaxy and could only pick one. Same for a Ronaldinho, who would wait until he was absolutely out of options in Europe before moving the U.S. The big-name designated players would be older and closer to retirement than they are now.
The World Cup is an exciting thing, something that can bring immense international attention and money to the United States, as well as make even casual sports fans pay attention to soccer. But the cost to MLS if they had to compromise on their schedule would be huge. MLS has to decide if it wants to become just another league in a sea of soccer leagues around the world, or if it wants to establish its own niche in the world and continue to grow.