A creative solution is needed
Sometime in late January, Major League Soccer will pull back the curtain on its 2006 schedule. And there they will be, sticking out like big ol' wet tortilla chips floating around in the party punch: MLS will schedule games smack in the middle of the World Cup.
From June 9 to July 9 this summer, everybody who knows his Ronaldinhos from his Del Pieros, his Beasleys from his Borgettis, will focus on events at Germany 2006. MLS will fade into the background.
In a span of 20 years, any genuine, foam-finger waving, replica-jersey wearing sports fan could watch 20 FA Cup finals, 20 Super Bowls, 20 British Opens, etc. In that same time, that same foam-fingered fanatic will see just five World Cups.
The dreamy anticipation, the colossal pageantry, the ubiquitous global hype and all of the graceful skills attached to those 31 days are soccer's quadrennial wonder. And frankly, the Kansas City Wizards vs. New England Revolution on a steamy Saturday in the nation's heartland just isn't going to stack up in comparison.
And yet, once again, MLS will slog forth through the World Cup. Commissioner Doug Logan did so in 1998. Commissioner Dan Garber did so in 2002, during the Americans' resonating quarterfinal push.
Garber has wrestled with the issue before, and will again. He knows better than anyone that all domestic sports -- not just soccer -- live and die by their stars. You think hoops, you think Shaq and Kobe. You think golf, you think Tiger and maybe Michelle Wie. The bottom line hinges on names you recognize - or names the marketing mavens hope you soon will recognize. So asking FC Dallas to play in 'Frisco without Eddie Johnson, or having the Rapids toil without Pablo Mastroeni makes little sense.
And that's not to mention the very essence of any sport: the competition. Championships should be decided by clubs' most representative teams, with unavoidable injuries standing as the exception.
This very predicament is why Garber says MLS will eventually fall in line with the globe's soccer calendar, starting in late summer and playing through the winter. How will that fly in the cold spots like New York, Boston and, maybe someday, Milwaukee or Rochester? "Fans go to places like that to watch the NFL in the winter," Garber said.
Moving to a fall-winter schedule would clear up the summer. Problem solved! Let's all go eat Tex-Mex and argue about Brazil's chances at No. 6 this summer!
But that's another debate. For now, the question stands: what should MLS do during this World Cup summer, while Bruce Arena's men are plotting, scheming and sweating to wiggle out of that quagmire of a first-round group? Here are the options:
MLS can kick it status quo, merrily stomping along with its 192-game schedule. Clubs will organize World Cup-watching parties in stadiums when it's feasible, attempting to bind together the events as best as possible.
But MLS cheapens its own brand by playing games without marquee players. It's unstable and somewhat unpalatable to decide important league matters without the players who truly matter. If Los Angeles misses the 2006 playoffs by one game, fans could rightfully point to the seven or eight matches without Landon Donovan and wonder "what if?"
True, we are talking only about a dozen or so Americans and a small handful of foreign internationals. But they certainly are critical parts. Maybe 2005 wasn't Eddie Pope's best year. But do you suppose John Ellinger is excited about playing matches in 2006 without his veteran center back?
And don't forget, Arena and other managers will summon their players in early May. So, it's not just the three or four weeks in the summer to be considered.
Besides all that, MLS will suffer from the -- clearly unfair -- comparisons. Fans will watch Argentina battle Ivory Coast on June 10 in Hamburg. But if they see Chivas USA and Columbus a few hours later, well, that's a little like driving a BMW to work and riding a crowded bus home. You'll get there, but you won't enjoy the ride as much.
The other MLS alternative is to go the NHL route and shut down for a spell. The hockey league is closing operations during the upcoming Winter Olympics. Critics of that idea say that MLS can't afford to be out of sight for that long - an argument that makes little sense. MLS hibernates from mid-November until April, and people still manage to locate the stadiums each spring.
No, the issue here really is about math and the calendar. Simply put, MLS doesn't have enough weekends available to take a World Cup break and still play its 32-game season, plus playoffs, within an eight-month window.
Playing between April and early September gives MLS roughly 28 weekends. Subtract one for the All-Star weekend, and that leaves each team with 27 weekend dates and five midweek games. More weeknight dates? Yes, MLS could do so. But those are serious buzz killers for fans, and the attendance suffers.
(As an alternative, of course, MLS could go old school and add a few of those Friday-Sunday sets, as they did back in 1997. Anybody remember those? Teams would play Friday, then have exactly one day to rest and travel before playing on Sunday, a concept that surely ranks high on the long, sad list of bad ideas.)
But how about this: what if they combine the two concepts, playing a limited schedule during late May and early June? And each club could mix in an international exhibition or two for the Nervous Nellies who fear disappearing for too long.
Go ahead and give the MLS teams a weekend or two off during that period. Take the hit on a couple more weeknight matches, possibly right after the July 9 final in Berlin, taking advantage of any fans who are still jonesing for a post-World Cup soccer fix.
Perfect solution? No. Far from it. But it's a World Cup. It's special. It calls for special thinking, for creative solutions and exceptions.
MLS officials shouldn't just default to the status quo.
Steve Davis covers soccer for The Dallas Morning News and ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org