The MLS game took place on November 10. The Seattle Sounders defeated Toronto FC in MLS Cup that day, culminating a postseason that began on October 19.
Due to the October and November international breaks that have long caused scheduling headaches for MLS, the last regular season games were played on October 6, the result of a new schedule that prevents the November FIFA window from interrupting the playoffs.
That means the 10 teams that did not qualify for the playoffs will have waited five months to start the next season. Even for Seattle and Toronto, it’s a four-month offseason. In the world of soccer, that is a long layoff. European teams enjoy only two full months off, and for those who go all the way in the Champions League or domestic cups, that break is even smaller. Summer international tournaments and then preseason exhibitions mean the top players measure their offseasons in weeks.
MLS shouldn’t strive for such a small offseason. It’s not ideal at all for players, and it’s hard not to wonder whether the stars would perform at higher peaks if they did not have to play so frequently. In MLS, travel is a much more significant issue, and road games are brutal for unique reasons: varying weather conditions, altitude, and midweek games, among other factors.
But taking five months off is a negative by-product of 2019’s new schedule. The league has to find a happy medium. The offseason is not exciting or interesting enough to validate such a long layoff. Casual sports fans lose interest, and in a country where the sports landscape is packed, MLS is out of sight, out of mind when games aren’t happening.
So how do you fix the MLS offseason problem?
The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio tweeted an interesting proposal:
Playing regular season games into November maintains the relevance of non-playoff teams. The current playoff format, with every game a knockout game, can fit nicely from the end of the November international break until mid-December.
I would push back on starting the regular season the third weekend of February. I see the reasoning behind it — extending the season and preventing midweek games is a positive, and mid-to-late February is a softer spot on the sports schedule. However, pushing the start of the playoffs until after the November FIFA window already does the job of extending the season. Teams would report to preseason camp even earlier, particularly those participating in Concacaf Champions League. A team playing in MLS Cup and the CCL (a common overlap) might only have three weeks off before jumping back into training camp.
Keep the start of the regular season in early March, which is still a soft landing spot on the sports calendar, but push the playoffs deeper in the winter. Chilly playoff games are exciting, and most teams aren’t in freezing cold locales anyway. A mid-December MLS Cup is an acceptable price to pay for a quicker offseason turnaround.
Players see benefits of longer offseason
Players like longer offseasons. Vadim Demidov cited MLS’s as a positive in an interview with The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter. Potential overseas players may be attracted by the opportunity to recharge for three months and spend time with their families. A new format that starts the playoffs after the November international window would maintain a longer offseason than many other leagues.
Some have mentioned the 2022 World Cup, which will take place in December of that year due to Qatar’s high summer temperatures, as a deterrent. Cross that bridge when we get there.
MLS should look to address this issue in some way. Fans of non-playoff teams haven’t seen their clubs play since early October, and still won’t until early March. That is too long of a gap.