Figuring out when the Sounders season begins and ends was already a challenge for many casual sports fans without introducing elements like CONCACAF Champions League play into the mix. Here is a scheduling primer to help make sense of it all.
By now, some casual sports fans are wondering what the heck is going on with the Sounders and why they’d run a preseason lineup out there Sunday for a supposed home and season opener.
It’s the latest installment of continuing confusion for local fans that, for years, have wanted to start following the Major League Soccer team but can’t seem to figure out when their season begins and ends and what it’s actually comprised of. The reason the Sounders seem to play on a continuous loop of regular seasons, playoffs and tournaments has much to do with the international soccer schedule and its conflicts with the MLS season.
To sort out some of that confusion, here is a “Sounders Schedule 101’’ attempt to break down the team’s schedule and make sense of everything that goes on simultaneously.
MLS REGULAR SEASON: Like all North American professional sports leagues, MLS actually does play a schedule with a beginning, an end and an off-season. The problem is, unlike other sports leagues in this country, MLS is part of the FIFA global soccer body and subject to its rules and tournaments.
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As such, there are several prolonged breaks throughout the MLS schedule that cause the season to go on nearly two months longer than fans here are used to in other leagues. These breaks are due to FIFA-sanctioned international tournaments like the CONCACAF Gold Cup, or qualifying matches for the FIFA World Cup. MLS is obligated by FIFA to have teams release players to their respective national squads so they can train ahead of and play in these tournaments.
As a result, you’ll sometimes see part of the MLS schedule going on with teams missing top players. Usually, the league will take a two-week break for the actual tournament itself. This year, with the U.S. having failed to qualify for the World Cup, the league is taking only a nine-day break rather than the usual 13.
But staying dormant during the pre-tournament training sessions and post-tournament rest period would mean a month-long hiatus that just isn’t feasible for MLS from a business perspective. So, the solution is having some teams play minus their best players. Not exactly fair, but teams prepare for it, as the Sounders have, knowing Panama’s Roman Torres and Uruguay’s Nicolas Lodeiro will likely be gone for this summer’s World Cup.
The bottom line is, the MLS regular season actually is quite similar to most leagues in this country and runs from early March through late October. Where fans get confused is the playoffs don’t start until November because of scheduling breaks and then drag out until early December due to more scheduling stoppages.
So, if you have a playoff team, like the Sounders have every year since inception, the season does carry into November. And if you have a finalist squad like the Sounders the past two seasons, you play until the second week of December and then turn around and open training camp six weeks later.
In other words, some teams get a three-month off-season. Others get half that time. In baseball, even if you win a World Series, you still get nearly three months off before spring training. So, yes, MLS can seem to be running on a loop.
WHY FIFA MESSES UP MLS SCHEDULE: The simple answer is, it has no choice. It is trying to organize competitions internationally between leagues in different countries and continents all with their own schedules. The English Premier League begins in August and runs through until mid-May, obviously conflicting with the MLS season.
They’ve been playing soccer in England for over a century and aren’t going to change things to accommodate us. It would be impossible for FIFA to co-ordinate global tournaments without inconveniencing everybody and in soccer, the players, coaches, teams and fans just learn to live with it.
WHAT IS CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE?: Every part of the soccer world has its own organizing confederation under FIFA and in our case, CONCACAF represents the nations of North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Every year, top individual club teams from those nations are invited to play in the following year’s CONCACAF Champions League tournament.
Again, because of scheduling, it’s impossible to have the current year’s champs play the tournament that same year. MLS teams qualify by winning the MLS Cup, finishing first overall in the regular season, placing first in the opposing conference and by winning either the U.S. Open Cup or the Canadian equivalent. That’s five MLS entries per season. If a team qualifies in two different ways, an MLS team with the next-best record that hasn’t yet qualified gets chosen.
The Sounders have played in this tournament before as U.S. Open Cup winners. This year’s entry is because of their 2016 MLS Cup victory. So, even though it’s early 2018 already, we’re still having the top MLS teams from late 2016 play this out.
And because the tournament’s schedule runs smack dab into the opening of the MLS season, the Sounders had to choose which players to play in each without burning everybody out. That’s why they had such a mediocre lineup for Sunday’s opener versus Los Angeles FC. They have prioritized doing well in Champions League and want a strong lineup for their quarterfinal match Wednesday against the Chivas team from Mexico.
No MLS team has won the Champions League since it was reformatted in 2008. The winner of CONCACAF gets to play in a global FIFA Club World Cup tournament against some of the biggest squads in the soccer universe, like Real Madrid. And competing on a global scale is a big reason the current Sounders ownership got into the soccer business in the first place.
U.S. OPEN CUP: This is our country’s national open championship, meaning professional and amateur squads of all levels can try to qualify and compete. It also runs concurrent to the MLS regular season and is similar to the F.A. Cup in Great Britain, or the Copa del Rei in Spain. In many soccer nations, winning the national open championship is considered a huge accomplishment. It is not as established in our culture, where top pro leagues and their titles are the ultimate prize.
The Sounders placed an early priority on winning U.S. Open Cups after their 2009 franchise inception simply to gain quick respectability in the Seattle sports community. But now that they’ve actually won an MLS Cup title and lost in the finals of another, they place less of a priority on U.S. Open Cups and use them as more of a developmental opportunity for second division players and top prospects.
While some fans view this as a pain in the neck for the team in an already cluttered schedule, others see it as necessary for maintaining a soccer culture in this country and staying consistent with how the rest of the world operates.
So, there you have it. The MLS schedule actually isn’t that difficult to figure out once you broaden your mind to include the global aspect of soccer, the logistical nightmare it presents and the overall significance of tournaments beyond just our nation and its priorities.
If the Sounders go on to win their Champions League tournament – they’ve gotten to the semifinals just once in 2013 and have never won a game in that round – it will be a significant international achievement and Sunday’s season opening MLS loss will be forgotten. If not, it will just be another example of in-season scheduling headaches all pro soccer squads accept as a part of doing business.