MLS may not play during FIFA breaks in 2024 Latest

Is MLS on the verge of solving a problem that has dogged it since 1996?

According to Inter Miami head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, the league is thinking about doing away with the deeply unpopular practice of scheduling games during international windows.

“I understand that they are analyzing [how to avoid scheduling games during FIFA windows] for next year,” Martino told reporters on Tuesday. “It is probable that will happen.”

Martino was discussing the topic because he’s about to face some time without Lionel Messi. The Miami boss said that the iconic No. 10 will miss at least three of the club’s remaining 11 games due to upcoming FIFA breaks from September 4-12 and October 9-17.

That potentially throws some cold water on the idea that Miami — unbeaten in Messi’s nine appearances thus far — could manage a potentially miraculous run to an MLS playoff berth. The Herons, despite Messi Mania taking hold as the club has won the Leagues Cup and advanced to the U.S. Open Cup final, are 11 points behind the Chicago Fire, who currently sit in the final Eastern Conference playoff place.

Can MLS actually avoid playing through FIFA windows?

Messi aside, the idea that MLS could move away from something that has drawn complaints from fans, players, coaches, and teams for the league’s entire lifespan would be legitimately big news.

The gripe is obvious: Many of the league’s best players also play for their national teams. Scheduling matches while MLS sides will be without their stars makes for worse games. With no recourse — FIFA rules are crystal clear on mandating that players have to be released —  MLS teams have for over a quarter-century just forged on without them.

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The league taken some steps in recent years to minimize the problem, extending the season by starting earlier and ending later. Despite expanding into an unwieldy 29 teams (a number that will grow to 30 for the 2025 season), the league has stuck with each team having 34 games, even as the schedule has become less balanced as a result.

However, this year’s Leagues Cup required a total halt to MLS league play from July 15 to August 20, more or less undoing any of the gains MLS’s previous changes had made towards the realities of FIFA’s international calendar.

As a result, MLS scheduled 99 games during 2023 FIFA breaks, the large majority of which (71) came during the Gold Cup. There were 12 additional games scheduled one day after the end of international windows, which almost always sees national team players miss out again.

When push comes to shove, there’s just no time being left on the table. MLS is already getting into dubious territory scheduling games in late February, when around 15 teams are at risk of unsafe weather conditions. MLS Cup is scheduled for December 9, and a handful of northern teams will have difficulties in guaranteeing standard outdoor training sessions should they get that far.

The MLS calendar was a tight fit without the Leagues Cup, but the league clearly has its sights set on its partnership with Liga MX growing. That event may change, but it’s not going anywhere.

MLS may not play during FIFA breaks in 2024

Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

In 2024, there’s no reason to expect an easier time from a scheduling perspective. The Asian Cup and African Cup of Nations are both set to run from mid-January to mid-February, while Euro 2024 and Copa América will run from June to July. In addition, March, June, September, October, and November will all feature standard international windows.

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That leaves MLS with very few options. The league could extend the season earlier into February, likely obliging many teams to start the season with a road-heavy schedule, while also hurting revenue in a lot of cities due to a probable attendance drop. The playoffs could also start one week later, with the same problems coming up for what are the league’s most meaningful games.

The reality is that MLS has around 42 weekends to get its season in, from start to finish, and international breaks take up five of them. The number climbs to nine when UEFA, CONMEBOL, or CONCACAF schedules a continental competition, or during a World Cup. As CONCACAF holds the Gold Cup every two years, those nine weekends for FIFA windows are going to be there every time the league sits down to hash out a schedule.

Even if one assumes that MLS will expand one week in each direction (meaning, 44 weekends to get games in), complying with every international break leaves 35 weekends to get the job done. With the Leagues Cup taking up a month, that drops to 31, a timeframe that still has to include a longer-than-ever playoff format.

Barring a move to a winter schedule that is totally unfeasible for half the league, the only other way to work around international windows is to pack the schedule with midweek play. That’s not good either: Attendance plummets on Wednesday nights even in the best-attended MLS cities. Teams get little time to actually train and improve themselves, while players end up at risk for overuse injuries. Generally speaking, in terms of quality of play and atmosphere, midweek MLS games tend to feel like the entire league took a time machine back a decade.

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