Most leagues in the world schedule around built-in international windows, dates reserved for World Cup qualifiers and continental championships. Major League Soccer, in large part because of its unorthodox spring-through-fall season, does not.
The captain of the United States men’s national soccer team hustled through the lobby of the Olive 8 hotel in downtown Seattle looking for a television and the score.
Peru edged in front of the U.S. early at D.C.’s RFK Stadium, netting the opener while Michael Bradley and his Toronto FC teammates were still stuck on the team bus en route from practice. Bradley found a TV showing the game and scooted a chair closer to the screen.
The most complete midfielder in the USMNT player pool watched helplessly as the Yanks struggled to keep possession. Bradley was antsy, checking Twitter and Instagram between anxious glances up at the screen.
“Get there, Jozy,” he muttered under his breath as his club-and-country running mate Jozy Altidore sprinted on goal but lost a scoring chance to a too-heavy touch.
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“I never want to miss anything for anyone,” he said, tearing his eyes away from the halftime show. “The most frustrating part of MLS at the moment is that we still, in a lot of places, play through FIFA dates.”
Most leagues in the world schedule around built-in international windows, dates reserved for World Cup qualifiers, continental championships and tuneup friendlies. Major League Soccer, in large part but not only because of its unorthodox spring-through-fall season, does not.
So though the United States is gearing up for its winner-take-all Confederations Cup playoff with Mexico next month, it plays on without regular starters such as Bradley and Clint Dempsey.
The Sounders and Toronto FC both have plenty on the line ahead of Saturday night’s MLS showdown at CenturyLink Field. Yet Seattle will be without international call-ups Marco Pappa and Roman Torres, while TFC is missing its starting front line in Altidore and MVP front-runner Sebastian Giovinco.
“It’s a lose-lose for players,” Bradley said. “As a player, you hope at some point the league will make the decision to stop playing through the international dates.”
The constant tug-of-war between club and country obligations — the invisible hand ticking off a pros-and-cons list in the background — compounds the frustration. Dempsey’s lingering hamstring injury helps explain why his national-team call-up was delayed until the midweek match against Brazil.
It’s less clear why Bradley was left behind while Altidore temporarily filled in as USMNT captain.
“People have to understand that nothing is ever my decision,” Bradley said. “These things get discussed and decided at the highest level between the ownership at Toronto FC, the league office and U.S. Soccer. It puts players in awkward positions, because people think we’re the ones making decisions – I’m going to go to this one; I’m not going to go to that one.
“It’s not like that. … At the end, I go where they tell me.”
Half of MLS’ 20 teams are on bye this weekend to help alleviate some of this attrition. That’s of little consolation to Seattle, which enters Saturday tied on points with San Jose for the final Western Conference playoff spot, and Toronto, in fourth in the East and seeking to sew up the first postseason berth in club history.
“If it’s an injury or in the natural scope of the season, you live with it,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said. “When a calendar is set ahead of time for the international dates, those things can be matched up. We can at least take one more factor away from the occasion as to why we’re missing guys.”
A drastic shift to a fall-through-spring campaign is highly unlikely – good luck selling tickets in Foxborough, Mass., in mid-February – but more midweek games would help free up bye weekends. More teams owning and controlling their own stadiums means more schedule flexibility.
In the meantime, clubs are left to cross their fingers, put all their chips on black and hope national-team duty and league scheduling breaks their way.
“For me, it’s very simple,” Bradley said. “As the league grows and as the league continues to attract better and better, you owe it to everybody – the players, the fans – to have the best product on the field every week. There’s got to be a solution.”