While I realize that the above graphic may be a bit misleading (MLS has already stated their 2012 season will begin in early March), February start dates for the league may not be far off. In a surprisingly candid statement to the media today at a training session for tomorrow’s match vs. Ecuador, Jurgen Klinsmann aired his personal concerns about the way our pro leagues stack up with the rest of the world.
From AP/Fox Soccer:
Klinsmann had already made big changes since replacing Bradley on July 29, and more are ahead. For instance, he wants to eliminate the two-to-three months off that Major League Soccer players get each year.
”The big challenge is for MLS overall, how can they stretch that season into a format that is kind of competitive with the rest of the world?” he said. ”Right now it’s not competitive. If you have a seven-, eight-month season, that’s not competitive with the rest of the world.”
First off, this is very interesting to hear Klinsmann open up about these beliefs. His predecessor, Bob Bradley, rarely spoke out of turn about any qualms he had with our domestic league. When Klinsmann was hired, there was speculation that USSF President Sunil Gulati may have given Klinsmann the promise of more latitude to assert influence when Gulati offered him the coaching job. This type of statement, in a relatively stunning fashion, appears to put pressure Commissioner Don Garber to at least consider this feedback and what MLS could do to accommodate.
The timing of this statement is also very interesting. The US just defeated Honduras 1-0, earning Klinsmann his first victory as Coach. If there’s ever a time where US Soccer fans were ready to give Klinsmann their full support, it is now. It’s not just the result, either; the style of play in the recent friendlies has been a more creative, attacking style than we’ve seen for awhile under Bradley. This may have been the perfect time to throw an opinion out in the open, to gauge the response across the board. Klinsmann does have his detractors, pointing to his troubles managing Bayern Munich; supporters, however, seem optimistic thus far with the German coach’s progress in the National Team.
Add to this the logic of Klinsmann’s statements, and the way he’s applying this to his selections for the National Team. For a player in the Barclays Premier League, barring any bans or injuries, a player competing in every match would see 38 league matches in a season. For the top teams, you get UEFA Champions (or Europa) League, which adds 6-10 matches. The domestic Cups also allow teams another 2-4 matches, and that’s not counting return legs in the case of a draw in an FA Cup match. So for a team like Arsenal, a player could see 45 or more matches counting all competitions.
Compare that to MLS. This season, MLS clubs played 34 league matches, 4 fewer than in England. CONCACAF Champions League only allows 4 American teams per season (and one Canadian team) to get those extra half-dozen matches. There is only one “traditional” domestic Cup competition, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. There are no return legs in the USOC, and the recent setup dictated that the lowest 12 teams in MLS face each other, effectively cutting out 6 teams with only one match played. Now, 10 teams make the MLS Cup playoffs, which does add matches, but it adds only a match for most teams in the playoffs. Perhaps this is one explanation for why Klinsmann has seemed to prefer players in European leagues in his recent lineups.
Is an extended schedule feasible going forward in a Spring-to-Fall league setup? By my estimation, MLS would have to start the season about 2 weeks early and maybe sprinkle in two extra midweek matches. That would put the start of the season in mid-to-late February. I don’t see this as a problem. The main argument is that bad weather would hurt attendance. From what I’ve seen, most MLS crowds are resilient, and even if the stadium is 60-75% full for those few matches early on, it serves the purpose of getting these pros more opportunities to play. Additionally, for World Cup years, this eases any desire to accommodate a midsummer break. But at some point, one would have to consider a synchronization with the Fall-to-Late Spring FIFA calendar, something the world governing body has requested in the past.
Regardless of what the impact might be, I think Klinsmann’s candor is refreshing, and may be the perfect contrapuntal voice for US Soccer at the moment. He is a guy who has played and coached on some excellent European squads. He garners respect, and it’s easy to believe he possesses a good barometer for advancing the sport in our country. It doesn’t mean throwing out everything that has been instituted by Major League Soccer. Garber has recently indicated he would like to unbalance the schedule. You could have an unbalanced schedule while still extending the season. Klinsmann made no assertions about other hot-button issues like finances, the fall-to-summer schedule, or the US soccer pyramid. What he has done is show that we have a National Team Coach who will speak his mind if he feels it may improve our chances on the world stage; for my taste, I think that’s a great quality for a coach to hold.