Entering competitions outside the regular season is a great move for MLS teams. But, as the number of games increases, MLS will have to expand roster sizes. And quickly.
Houston already will have experienced some of its most important (or at least lucrative) competitions by the time it visits New England for the MLS season opener March 29. But that's not so bad. Nobody is going to complain about preseason training in Hawaii.
But things start getting complicated in July and August. Just when the Texas sun is at its hottest, Houston will be juggling Superliga and U.S. Open Cup matches. And on the horizon is the CONCACAF Champions League, a successor to the Champions Cup, which will mean more games because of its group-play format, similar to the European version.
The Dynamo will play at least 40 competitive games this year. The breakdown is: Pan Pacific (two); Champions Cup (two); MLS regular season (30); Superliga (three); U.S. Open Cup (one); Champions League (three). This total could reach as many as 58 games if the Dynamo reach the finals of all the tournaments, and that could mean a minimum of two more games in the World Club Cup.
MLS teams simply cannot be expected to perform at optimum levels in outside competitions with only 18 senior players. By entering so many tournaments, MLS' ambition is overreaching its budget.
MLS rosters can total 28, including Generation Adidas players and various other categories, a number which would be sufficient if all players were full professionals without designations. (Generation Adidas is a joint venture of Major League Soccer and the United States Soccer Federation that aims to develop young soccer talent in the U.S.; until 2005, the program was sponsored by Nike and called Project-40.)
The league appears to be taking steps toward improving the player personnel situation -- the league has increased the salary cap to $2.25 million per team and is considering eliminating the distinction between junior and senior internationals. But until the collective bargaining agreement is renewed (the current CBA expires in 2009), do not expect drastic changes.
This means MLS teams will be competing with Mexican clubs which have unlimited roster spots and no salary caps. Pachuca, which has advanced to the World Club Cup in Japan, has a 34-player roster; Pumas have 32; Club America has 30. Chivas Guadalajara not only has its first-team roster but also can call up players from the minor league Tapatios.
D.C. United played in several competitions this year, including the Copa Sudamericana, and performed well in all of them but came up just short when it counted. Having more players does not guarantee D.C. would have advanced, but it would have given coach Tom Soehn more options.
There is a fine line between determining winners and losers in professional sporting championships. And that is especially apparent in soccer, since home-and-away series are often decided by one goal. To succeed, teams need to have as much in their favor as possible.
D.C. United and New England also will be involved in several competitions next year. And, like Houston, they could lose players to national team duty.
Since players cannot be expected to perform at peak levels for 50-some games, the smart ones will be pacing themselves for the bigger games. If teams are wise, they will also pick and choose, inevitably concentrating on the potentially rich competitions. And, if MLS is smart, it will realize that bolstering rosters is going to become even more crucial in the future. The investment would more than pay off if an MLS team qualifies for the FIFA Club World Cup.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.