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Sep 27, 2006

Pondering international schedule alignment

Major League Soccer must align its schedule with the international calendar. This could create problems for the league, but many more will be solved, according to Colorado Rapids coach Fernando Clavijo. "Sooner or later, this needs to happen," Clavijo said. "We need to make the league more exciting from the beginning of the season." The league's 11th season is nearing its end with dramatic playoff races in both conferences. But with such a high percentage of teams in contention for the playoffs, it raises the question of just what was so important about the first several months of the season. The most efficient formula for success in MLS is for a team to tread water until the final month of the regular season, then sprint to the finish and prepare to play four playoff games at its best. The New England Revolution appeared to be on the verge of perfecting this method in the 2002-04 seasons, but made the mistake of starting fast and peaking too early last season. The Los Angeles Galaxy copied the formula and defeated the Revolution in the MLS Cup last year. Now, the MLS technical committee -- which includes coaches such as Clavijo and New York's Bruce Arena -- is considering recommendations such as eliminating conferences and going to a single table and also setting up a split season, an apertura-clausura set-up similar to Mexico. The idea is to place more importance on regular-season games; place MLS teams in a position to compete in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, Copa Libertadores, Copa Sudamericana, and the proposed Interliga with Mexican clubs; and also to set things up for players to transfer in and out of the MLS easier. Clavijo uses the example of the Revolution's Clint Dempsey and Shalrie Joseph, who both recently received offers from European clubs. Both would have had to leave the Revolution in the midst of the season, and it would have been very difficult to replace them. If MLS played at the same time as European leagues, Dempsey and Joseph might have been able to leave without causing a major disruption for their team. There are many potential difficulties associated with aligning with the international calendar. Stadia might not be available, fields might be frozen, fans might not want to brave freezing temperatures. "You are playing in the middle of summer or you are playing in 30-degree temperatures," Clavijo said. "I believe players would prefer to be playing when it's 30 degrees. "Right now we don't have the mechanism to bring players in. If you are going to sell a Clint Dempsey or a Taylor Twellman, how do you get a player to replace them at that time of year?" But will spectators be willing to shiver for 90 minutes? "We don't know until we try," Clavijo said. "It will take a couple more seasons for any of this to come together. We still don't have the stadia and we don't have enough teams that can control their dates to deal with all of this. But it is going to happen." This certainly happens in Latin America, where seasons are split and players are bought and sold whenever Europe comes calling. Argentina and Brazil are set up to develop and sell players, with the efficiency of a production line. But those countries have highly evolved systems for identifying talent and allowing it to flourish. "In South America, if they let one guy go it's not an issue because there are three or four others ready to come in," Clavijo said. "The U.S. is not a long ways away from being like that. We are making giant steps. The owners want to open things up a little more and be more creative bringing in different people. "The biggest problem we have is that players make it [in college] if they are 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3, even if they have no skills. At that level they can make a difference because of their size, but the skillful player is being overlooked right now. It's all about size and speed, even if you cannot trap the ball. I don't see enough players coming out of the college draft. The younger or smaller but more technical kids do not have a chance. "If you look at Argentina, you see little guys like Pablo Aimar, Lionel Messi, Javier Saviola. They don't need to be big. We still have not identified the right players and, more importantly, we are not developing them. It's a big country and I don't want to blame anybody, but we have overlooked so many people." Clavijo encourages players to seek greener pastures and he is aggressive about finding replacements. He realizes just how great the economic pull is in Europe. Since last season, the Rapids sent Nat Borchers to Norway, Dedi Ben-Dayan to Israel, Alain Nkong to Spain (Nkong returned last month). Jean Philippe Peguero, who Clavijo brought into the league after coaching him with the Haitian national team, was sold to Odense in Denmark. "I said it would take three years to put a team together," Clavijo said. "It is my job as coach to win a championship and we have assembled a very, very good roster but we need to tweak it a little bit. I am ready to go to Argentina and Brazil and maybe the Caribbean. You can do two things: You can complain and cry or you can go out and get it, and I am going to go out and get it. "The players we bring in are good individuals, good human beings, they are good for the community. I came into this country with a lot of dreams and that is what these players are all about. They are not coming here to leave halfway through the season. But you have to search and do the work -- you can't just look at videos.'' As the MLS becomes more sophisticated, Clavijo believes change will follow. "People coming into the league are competitive," Clavijo said. "And it's becoming more about winning. Presidents and managers have more information about how the league runs. In the beginning, only a couple people understood how the rules worked, but right now, everyone knows more and there are more soccer people in positions to make decisions."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.