Friday, June 3, 2011

Time for MLS to Sort Out the Gold Cup Mess

Juan Agudelo: Among the Missing
As the Red Bulls prepare themselves for Saturday's evening's home match against Columbus Crew, they do so without six key squad members. Dane Richards is away at Jamaican National Team training in Brazil, Dwayne DeRosario is with Canada, Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo suit up tomorrow against Spain in Foxboro and Rafael Marquez gears up for the Gold Cup with Mexico.  Then there's the curious case of Bouna Coundoul's on-again, off-again relationship with the Senegal National Team. It's a regrettable side-effect of MLS' ongoing failure to take a break during major international competitions, and while RBNY is not the only club affected, they certainly have been hit hardest.

Mired in a month-long winless streak, the Red Bulls could sorely use all three points against the Crew, but deprived of key cogs in the machine, getting the maximum return from this match will be a tall order for Hans Backe and company. Sure, Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers will still be in there, but the backline will be makeshift and the midfield pieces will have to be creatively arranged. God forbid a major injury or two strikes over the next several weeks. What is already an absurd situation could turn into a farce.

By continuing to play a full slate of matches during the Gold Cup MLS is devaluing its regular season as a competition, distorting the table and placing an undue burden on clubs who have taken the initiative to develop or sign top international talent. It's impossible to unring a bell, so there's nothing that can really be done at this point to help the Red Bulls or any other team missing players. But Don Garber, the competition committee and everyone at the US Soccer Federation need to take a hard look at this season and find a way to ensure that something similar does not happen the next time around. The last thing MLS needs is to provide ammo to its detractors, but they've done just that by refusing to break during Gold Cup.

The difficulty, of course, lies in the favorite whipping boy of Eurosnobs - the fact that MLS does not play on the "international [read European] calendar." Now I've never been one who has advocated or even thought it practical for MLS to switch to a fall-spring schedule. The reasons against it are too numerous to address in detail here, but they include weather, competition against the NFL and college football, attendance concerns and stadium availability. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

So what can be done? Here are a few ideas just for starters:
  • Begin the season earlier and end it later in Gold Cup years. The league already seems to have made a decision that the MLS Cup final will remain a warm weather event for the foreseeable future. Will another week make that much of a difference to Southern California?
  • Stage more midweek matches after the weather starts to warm up. This isn't an ideal solution from an attendance perspective, but there have been good crowds in Seattle, Portland and New York for recent weekday games. Once kids are out school, weekday attendance becomes less of a concern for those with families.
  • Limit the number of players any MLS team can lose to international duty to three. This may not be practical and could run MLS afoul of FIFA, but it's at least worthy of discussion.
  • Further expand MLS rosters or allow short term loans. Money is the issue here, but deeper squads would be less severely impacted by the loss of a player or two.
  • Trim the MLS schedule. With the addition of the league's 19th team in Montreal and a 20th team on the horizon, this is probably coming anyway. Preserve the Eastern and Western Conferences and limit out of conference games to one per year, alternating home/away.
  • Move (or condense) the Gold Cup. The most radical, and least likely, solution.
Do you have any creative ways to work around the Gold Cup conundrum? Let's hear them. Use the comments section below.

Meanwhile, viper will be along tomorrow with our match preview. Let's hope the boys can raise their game against Columbus, eliminate errors, and grab a badly needed three points.
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