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MLS schedule rife with challenges

Ask your local grocery store manager or the boss at your favorite burger joint about the toughest part of their job. "Scheduling" is likely the answer.

Why? Because it's simply impossible to keep everyone happy. Invariably, somebody's going to feel put-out, marginalized or disrespected. Allegations of favoritism can grow from a benign simmer to a damaging, roiling boil. Or maybe somebody just gets bummed about not getting the choice shifts.

Now multiply that by exponential factors and you're probably getting close to level of acrimony and angst felt over Major League Soccer's scheduling process -- a serially painful exercise playing out right now in MLS. Opening dates have been announced. But with everything else, there are still plenty of moving parts.

Building the MLS schedule, with unique challenges other sports don't face, is like assembling furniture from IKEA. It doesn't seem like it should be that hard -- but before too long you're stuck, flummoxed and scanning for help that probably isn't arriving.

Each year brings its own particular challenges in this tricky and unlovely process. For Major League Soccer in 2008, let's just start with this: There will be no breaks for World Cup qualifying. Deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis has already said so.

So let the hue, cry and teeth gnashing begin on that one.

Otherwise, here's a short list of the complicating factors as MLS deciders assign matches to 14 teams in '08, a process done in stages with significant adjustments proceeding every step: SuperLiga's sophomore edition; the new CONCACAF Champions League to be introduced later this summer; the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup; the 2008 Olympics and, lest we forget, the pressurized complexities of the Beckham factor.

There's also the ESPN2 Thursday night contests and the significant undertow those create on competitive matters; just ask any team that chased a Thursday road match with a Sunday road match. Ouch.

MLS must also step lively around its own strategic initiatives concerning international competition (a fancy way of saying the league can't blow its annual chance to score financially with friendlies versus European and Latin American big boys).

Here's another sticky issue specific to 2008: The schedule-makers will artfully dodge assigning nationally televised dates to San Jose's temporary digs. Quaint little Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara may provide dandy atmosphere for fans on-site, but it's sure to look more "Double-A ball" than "Major League ball" to the cameras. (Where would they even put the cameras?) So league schedule-builders may stamp "avoid at all cost" when it comes to Thursday night ESPN2 broadcasts -- although the team has committed to playing a few matches at the much-larger Oakland Coliseum, which may be fair game.

Total it all up and you start to develop a picture of why MLS believes it can't drop matches during those international fixture dates, although in a perfect world, that's exactly what would happen. Even with a schedule window expanding from 29 to 31 weeks this year, Gazidis said, "It is very challenging for us to avoid those fixture dates."

Actually, aside from the concertina wire-level hassle of those World Cup fixture dates, building Major League Soccer's schedule may be a little easier compared to last year. League spokesman Will Kuhns said 2007 may have been the mother of all schedule assembly messes. New national TV contracts and the first go at SuperLiga helped make it so. Plus, MLS had 13 teams, which eliminated preferences for establishing a nice rhythm, since somebody was left idle each round.

Last year probably should have offered something of a reprieve, since 2007 represented that quadrennial oddball season: after one World Cup but before qualification commenced for another round.

Rather, David Beckham crashed ashore and squeezed any potential "cushy" from the schedule-makers' task.

So here we are in '08, with a fresh set of wrinkles. Regarding those international fixture dates (first up, the important home-and-away series against Dominica or Barbados in June), league officials know to expect a steady barrage from writers, bloggers and practitioners of chat room bluster. The best MLS officials may do is attempt to mitigate the damage by limiting the matches close to those crucial World Cup qualifying dates. But since the ESPN2 contract requires certain Thursday dates to be occupied, even mid-week qualifying games are problematic.

You can expect that particular debate to crest in October, with World Cup qualifying dates on the 11th and 15th of that month. MLS fans may recognize that particular period as playoff home stretch time. This year, an all-time high six teams will miss the postseason, and you can be sure that one of them is going to miss a key cog at the worst possible moment.

Every year before the holiday break, teams submit lists of stadium blackout dates for the following season (concerts, conflicts with other leagues, etc.) and they submit a checklist of preferred high-traffic dates. From there, side conversations ensue on everything from landing that big Fourth of July match to limiting contests during the Olympic window (for teams that might lose an important player or two to Peter Nowak's squad). And plenty of those side conversations revolve around a certain brand name Englishman.

This year's process basically began with Beckham. The first "layer" (in schedule-maker parlance) was scattering the Beckham fairy dust over the land in strategic bursts. Suffice to say, every team has its preference. With that in place, the league moved on to solving other logistical riddles.

The full 2008 schedule should be out in early February, league officials say. They'll never make everybody happy, but they do have a target in that regard. If they can make everybody involved 75-80 percent happy, then it's "mission accomplished." The alternative is to make four or five teams quite happy, four or five with grudging acceptance and four or five with red-faced disgust.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.