To Everything There is a Season

One of the articles of faith among the kind of American soccer fans who are positive that MLS could transform itself into a World Class League© overnight by adopting a system of Promotion and Relegation is the one regarding making the switch to a Fall-to-Spring season, otherwise known as "aligning with Europe". That particular argument takes on added urgency when, as recently happened, MLS teams just emerging from preseason workouts get hammered in the CONCACAF Champions League by clubs in mid-season form.

As recently as last October, the normally sober Jeff Carlisle was predicting that the switch was imminent and that, :

Major League Soccer is inching closer to adopting a European-like schedule that could be implemented by the start of the 2014 season.

The plan... would have the MLS season begin play in either late July or early August and include a six- to eight-week winter break.

Yet somehow, incredibly, here we are headed into week four of the 2014 season and it's April.

(The relative sobriety of the folks at the NYDN in general, and Frank Isola in particular, is a topic beyond the scope of this particular writer. Isola is one of the few ESPN personalities who actually knows, follows and likes soccer unlike, for example, Sportscenter anchor Kenny Mayne who still punctuates highlight reel soccer goals with the witticism: "Orange slices for everybody". Funny stuff Ken. Die choking on your own blood.)

And of course we've got septuagenarian Swiss Grandee Sepp Blatter, leading expert on all things American, who is on record proclaiming that “It would be better for U.S. soccer's...popularity inside the country" to switch to "a European schedule" adding that it is “very important” that MLS do so and adding:

“[The move] was one of the key points we have discussed with the leadership of MLS and US Soccer the other day. And they are working on that.”

This line of thinking has seemingly been endorsed by our own beloved Cohiba Don from time to time, although it's never been clear whether he was saying that stuff just to placate Seppy or if he was really sitting alone in his office late at night pining for the opportunity to spend December showing the NFL just who can draw a 14 share on Fox and whose results get relegated to page 6 of the local birdcage liner.

So it was interesting the other day when, in response to an interview question, he pointed out that Winter in most of North America is an insane time to try and play soccer - which would certainly explain all those indoor soccer joints with bulging parking lots - and that even as late as March MLS was having a hell of a time getting fields thawed and useable:

"It is a virtual impossibility for us to play games in this country and in Canada in February. (This year) we had temperatures that were below zero, we had many feet of snow in most of our markets."

Some people were taken aback by this comment due to what he's said on the subject in the past, but anyone who has spent much time listening to The Don knows that he's as likely as not to make completely contradictory statements on any given subject depending on what week it is.

I used to think that the guys in Major League Soccer's really first rate communications shop probably woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat after another nightmare about what the Commish was going to say next that they were going to have to try and politely "clarify", but I've decided that's not really the case. They know that nobody takes what he says particularly seriously.

(Don't get me wrong here; I love Don to death and think he's done one hell of a job. It's just that he tends to say stuff he shouldn't sometimes. Makes him seem more human or interesting or something. Only a narrow minded schlub would get upset about it.)

This time however, he's dead right. While he didn't exactly come out and say it, MLS is not - sorry Jeff, Frank and everybody else who bought that story last October - going to a Fall-Spring schedule anytime soon and the odds are good that they never will.

The reason? Well, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the one word answer is:


Last August, Sepp Blatter began explaining - really more like "admitting" - to everyone that in fact it would be utter insanity to try and hold a World Cup in the desert in Summer.

This is something that of course everyone else knew perfectly well but Qatar bought that vote fair and square and there was nothing anyone could do about it aside from hoping that the hosts could manage to perfect those Magical Flying Air Conditioners by 2022.

You'll recall that last October Sepp confidently took his proposal to the Executive Committee and asked them to change to Winter dates, and they just as confidently replied: "Not so fast".

They established a committee to look into the whole idea, on the odd notion - for FIFA at least - that you need to have some facts in front of you before you make a decision.

That report is due just before Brazil 2014 kicks off, but in the interim both Blatter and General Secretary Jerome Valcke have continued to assert that not only would 2022 be held in the Winter but that November and December were really the only possible months.

This is because the Winter Olympics will begin in February and the IOC, which is already pretty unhappy with FIFA - soccer is the only Olympic competition which does not send the very best talent from each country and it pisses them off but the U 23+3 tournament that FIFA does allow sells a hell of a lot of tickets so they get to stay - issued a very specific and detailed threat about expelling FIFA if they even think about infringing on their skiing and skating and whatnot.

Which as I said leaves November-December 2022 as the only available time period. Valcke did say a couple weeks ago that he really thought November 15 through January 15 would be best possible dates but among other obvious problems it would mean that World Cup 2022 would conduct its semis and finals in 2023.

FIFA is pretty shameless, but not even their pampered and overpaid noses can get past that particular smell test.

All of which is to say that while there will be no official announcement until June at the earliest - reportedly the committee is already renegotiating TV contracts with outfits like Fox and Telemundo, neither of whom are thrilled by all of this and will be expecting a rebate - everyone accepts that Qatar 2022 will be held in November and December.

Which brings us to the European leagues, and this is where it gets fun.

Unlike MLS, the major overseas leagues cannot simply keep playing during a World Cup, and they can't shut down either.

First of all, unlike MLS, their biggest stars will still be playing well into the second month of the tournament and many of them will surely be participating in the semis and the finals.

And those team's commercial contracts and TV deals and already ludicrous schedules require them to deliver the big names in return for the big bucks. Teams like Barca and Inter and Chelsea have to put the superstars on the pitch.

Plus, of course, there is Champions League, Europa League, domestic cups, various charity cups, national team demands (no federation is going to simply take half the year off prior to a World Cup), on and on it goes.

All of it has to be recalibrated.

Add to that the fact that national teams want to have their players in camp 30 days prior to the tournament, and afterwards the players need at least 30 days to rest and heal before jumping back into league competition and you're not just talking about a two month break; in reality if will need to be closer to four.

That's aside from the fact that they can't change just the schedules of the top level leagues; the lower levels have to conform as well. Otherwise, cup competitions and transfers become much more problematical if not impossible.

Furthermore, you can't simply create a break by starting one season the week after ending the last. The players need a break to rest and heal, so any season shifting arrangement would have to be done over a couple of years.

English Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, for one, has argued that a winter World Cup could disrupt the European soccer calendar for up to three seasons because of the knock-on effects of having to stop and start a campaign.

Others have suggested that it will require at least two seasons, and maybe three on either side of 2022 so as not to make impossible demands on the players.

Which brings us to the shocker: there's a growing school of thought among European executives that, in fact, what will end up happening is that their leagues should make a gradual shift to a Spring-Fall season and then never switch back.

For one, Karl-Heinz Rumenigge, the Chairman of Bayern Munich and also, not coincidentally, Chairman of the European Club Association, thinks exactly that:

"Everywhere, be it Germany, France or England, summer is the best period of the year. And that is the season we don't play.

"In deepest winter, when it is very cold and snowing, we play nearly all the time in conditions that are disagreeable for both players and spectators. It is not logical."

Rummenigge told France Football that FIFA and UEFA are "seriously thinking" about an overhaul of the soccer calendar so European leagues would open in January and wrap up at the end of autumn."

This would not only solve the club scheduling issue but also take the increasingly annoying national team call up issue completely off the table by establishing a permanent window for international team play:

"In future, there could be two phases: one for club competitions, the other for qualifying matches or finals of the World Cup or the Euros. For one month, national teams would be completely free to call up their players."

He is telling reporters that, rather than seeing the World Cup switch as a problem to be overcome, it should be viewed "as an innovation that could improve the general context", adding:

"My sense is that we are heading straight in this direction"

Now of course none of this is even remotely certain. There's an awful lot that no one can predict or plan for in the next decade. The idiot greedbags on FIFA's Executive Committee who pocketed their bribes and then rode off into the sunset left a whole bunch of chaos in their wake.

Nonetheless, one thing is obvious: until all of this shakes out, Major League Soccer isn't changing a thing in terms of their schedule.

Because aside from the fact that their freshly minted TV deal contractually obligates MLS to deliver programming from March through November and there's no way on God's Green Earth that they could get away with changing that, there's one other basic fact here:

In the face of this kind of uncertainty, MLS would have to be insane to commit themselves to "aligning" their schedule with Europe's only to find that Europe has "aligned" themselves with us.