After MLS dived deeper into winter schedule discussions in 2013, Goal takes a closer look at the challenges surrounding such a format.Major League Soccer remains in a state of evolution. No secret there. With the thorny reconciliation of North American sporting culture and the global soccer community comes certain dilemmas.
One such quandary is the league's schedule. The American landscape dictates the spring-to-fall format MLS has used since its 1996 inception, offering enviable weather conditions for most of the season. But the European calendar operates on a fall-to-spring slate, putting MLS out of sync with much of the world and creating a slew of scheduling conflicts.
Since 2010, the league has considered proposals to adopt the European format. During this past year, MLS brought the discussion to its technical committee (including coaches), its competition committee (including owners) and the league office.
While the winter schedule isn't in the plans for the foreseeable future, the proposal remains an intriguing long-term possibility for a league with eyes on becoming one of the world's best by 2022.
"We will continue to look at it," commissioner Don Garber said during his State of the League address in December. "We've looked at it more deeply this time around than any time before. We went through fairly extensive discussions as a league to figure out if we can do this sometime in the future."
The general parameters of the winter schedule proposal have been well-established: The season would open in mid-to-late July, run through mid-December, then return from hiatus in mid-February and build toward the MLS Cup in late May or early June.
With that schedule would come key benefits. First, the league would avoid playing through summer tournaments such as the World Cup and Gold Cup, when national team players are called away.
The busy summer transfer window also would fall during the MLS offseason, allowing clubs to more smoothly integrate incoming players. And the playoffs would take center stage in prime weather while dodging competition from the NFL and college football.
So how would MLS make the winter schedule work? Here's a closer look at the challenges faced by such a format:
MLS would need to start by "winterizing" its cold-market stadiums. In addition to readying playing surfaces for the winter months, clubs would have to consider fan-friendly renovations such as heated seats and updated concourses, concessions and bathrooms.
Although Chicago, Colorado, Kansas City, New York, Salt Lake and Toronto already use the SubAir heated field system, more clubs would need to make that seven-figure investment. And December's MLS Cup at frigid Sporting Park in Kansas City showed even that amenity doesn't guarantee an ideal playing environment.
As Kansas City defender Matt Besler said postgame, "Half of the field was frozen — it felt like you were ice skating."
"It's not magic," said Hans Niska, Sporting's vice president of stadium operations. "It's another tool that helps us increase the air flow in the root zone. It can help us prolong the growing season to some degree and it can help us thaw out the field a little bit sooner in the spring. But it's definitely not a tool that can make the grass grow all winter."
The weather problem during those winter months would be minimized by having colder markets take on lighter home schedules than the likes of Los Angeles, Houston and Orlando.
Indoor matches, meanwhile, would be rare. While the Vancouver Whitecaps enjoy a retractable roof at BC Place, Canadian counterparts Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact wouldn't be interested in moving winter games to larger domed venues available in those cities.
"Those clubs want to play matches in their soccer-specific stadiums," Dan Courtemanche, the MLS executive vice president of communications, told Goal USA. "Although clearly at times they've played matches successfully in places like the Rogers Centre and the Olympic Stadium up in Montreal, that's not a long-term solution for them."
Once the growing season ends for the likes of Toronto and Montreal, resources must be redirected to simply thawing the pitch — making the crisp surfaces of the summer an unattainable luxury. With no opportunity for recovery, any damage to the field is likely to linger into the spring.
"If you play back-to-back games and in between the games the grass is dormant, it's not going to heal," Niska said. "In my opinion, the quality of the contest and the quality of the league is going to diminish to some degree ... and it will potentially increase injuries as well, playing on frozen and partially frozen fields and inconsistent surfaces."
Courtemanche confirmed that under at least one of the formats considered, the eight-week winter break would be equal in length to the summer offseason (though that doesn't include extra time off for teams eliminated from the playoffs). It's an odd notion, but one that does lessen the weather's impact on scheduling.
Yet that midseason break poses its own set of concerns regarding the momentum of the MLS campaign, and all of the storylines that come with it.
"It's not just about are we going to play three more games in cold-weather markets at an earlier time of the year — it's about what are we going to do with an extended break," Garber said in December. "We have not been able to figure out a way to solve the break."
The most prominent league to incorporate a lengthy winter break is the German Bundesliga, which had a five-week hiatus this season. From a player's perspective, the break typically features about 10 days off for Christmas and New Year's, then a second preseason of sorts as teams travel to warm-weather locations such as Spain and Qatar.
"It's almost like two mini-seasons," said D.C. United midfielder Jared Jeffrey, who played for Bundesliga side Mainz from 2010 to 2013. "You're looking forward to just kind of getting through the first half, focusing on that, and then it's nice to recharge and get ready for the second half of the season.
"I know the fans are always really hungry for the first couple games during the winter when you come back."
TO BE DETERMINED
Even though winter schedule talks grew more serious for MLS last year, they didn't advance far enough to address certain issues.
With the NCAA soccer season running from August to December, it's unclear whether the MLS SuperDraft would be moved from its traditional January slot. The dialogue also didn't dive deeply into how the league would handle transitioning from the current format to a winter schedule. (When Russia made a similar switch, it did so with a marathon campaign that began in March 2011 and finished in May 2012.)
It's also worth considering that there is a similar discussion going on across the pond, with Bayern Munich CEO and European Club Association chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge among those pushing for a change to a summer schedule. Some European nations, including Sweden and Norway, already play from the spring through the fall.
"Everywhere, be it Germany, France or England, summer is the best period of the year," Rummenigge told France Football last month. "And that is the season we don't play. In deepest winter, when it is very cold and snowing, we play nearly all the time in conditions that are disagreeable for both players and spectators. It is not logical."
Whatever lies in store for the MLS format, it's safe to say supporters' voices will be heard. The league has already included winter schedule questions in fan surveys (the results weren't made public), and objections on social media last fall to a possible switch didn't go unheard.
"It would be irresponsible," Courtemanche said, "to make that decision in a vacuum without consulting your consumers."
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