By Luis Bueno
Finally, Major League Soccer gets it right.
In a bit of news that seemingly caught fans and media alike off guard, MLS announced that the league will not play through the group stage of the 2010 World Cup as Commissioner Don Garber kept a promise he made three years ago to do just that.
In an unprecedented move for the league, no MLS games will be played in the 15 days that the group stage will be played, and the league made assurances that no games will be scheduled on the days of the semifinal and final matches next summer either.
“The decision to stop League play during the group phase of the 2010 FIFA World Cup is part of MLS’ commitment to deepen its connection with the millions of soccer fans in the United States and Canada,” Garber said in a statement announcing the move.
For too long, MLS has taken the opposite route. Since its inception, MLS has played through World Cups, World Cup qualifiers, Gold Cups and numerous friendlies involving the U.S. national team.
Now, much that was situations that were out of the league’s control. MLS had no chance of playing through the winter, so it could not follow the traditional summer-to-spring calendars followed everywhere else in the world. And a decade later, the climate has not changed in the United States, so that is not a viable option now.
Additionally, venues were an issue. Early in the league’s history, teams had to play games when they could and the league needed to plan its calendar around others’ needs. MLS teams were tenants in stadiums for years and were at the mercy of the respective stadiums’ owners.
The landscape has changed quite dramatically since then as soccer-specific stadiums are abundant.
But the change from renting stadiums to owning them did not have an effect on the calendar. In the 2005 Gold Cup, when a handful of teams had their own stadiums, MLS did not shut down. During the 2006 World Cup, MLS plowed through as if no tournament was going on in Germany. The lowlight may have been having scheduled four games on June 17, the same day the U.S. tied Italy 1-1 for the Americans’ lone highlight of the tournament.
MLS games were particularly brutal that summer. Maybe the quality of the league did not dip in June of ’06 but it certainly appeared to. After all, when watching a high-paced, thrilling and emotional World Cup game, it’s virtually impossible for a regular-season MLS game to get anywhere near that.
MLS played 14 games during the group stage of Germany 2006. During a media event at Home Depot Center that year, Garber said that would not happen four years later, but the league went on with business as usual the following summer as the promise apparently did not carry over into other tournaments.
In 2007, MLS played right on through the Gold Cup and Copa America, which featured the U.S. for the first time since 1995. And this current cycle of World Cup qualifying has not stopped the league from scheduling games not only on the same day as qualifiers but at the same time as qualifying matches involving the United States.
DC United’s game at FC Dallas on Sept. 5 overlapped with a vital do-or-die U.S. match against El Salvador at Rio Tinto Stadium. To add insult to injury, DC hosted Kansas City on Sept. 9, while the U.S. national team played at Trinidad & Tobago in another clutch game.
It was almost as if MLS was insulting soccer fans by pulling these shenanigans. DC fans, like all other MLS clubs’ supporters, had to choose between their team and the U.S. – those DC fans who support the U.S. anyway.
It was as if MLS had its blinders on, oblivious to what was going on outside of their league. It would be completely unthinkable for established and respected leagues playing through the World Cup. Those leagues shut down whenever qualifiers are played, with rare exceptions.
MLS, though, finally did the right thing. The World Cup is not only the greatest soccer spectacle, but it is the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet. Nothing matches the World Cup in terms of worldwide intrigue, attention, emotion and passion. MLS has finally shown some respect to the pinnacle of soccer.
So when San Jose-Toronto, Columbus-New England and Kansas City-Chivas USA kick off on Oct. 10, when the U.S. plays another critical qualifier and New York plays at Real Salt Lake on Oct. 14 – when the U.S. could be playing for their World Cup lives – fans of those respective clubs can take solace that next summer, MLS won’t put them in that position.
Luis Bueno is Goal.com’s Mexico editor and has covered Major League Soccer since 1998.
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