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Wednesday, January 28, 2009
MLS tweaks its schedule, but not enough

Steve Davis

Let the next round of club-vs.-country consternation commence in 3, 2, 1 …

Major League Soccer released its full schedule Wednesday, complete with an earlier opener, a slightly reduced mishmash of midweek matches and plenty of fodder for the roiling debate over relief during international fixture dates.

League officials had previously announced season openers for all 15 clubs, including the expansion Seattle Sounders, who launch play in the 14th MLS campaign March 19 against Red Bull New York.

That marks the first of 225 contests; playoffs begin Oct. 29 with the championship set for Nov. 21 or 22.

On the plus side, Wednesday's release of the whole shebang shows a slight lean toward more weekend matches. This time around, 90 percent of all games will be on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, up from 84 percent last year.

That's a good thing. Although MLS seems to be shifting slightly away from traditional soccer marketing strategies, which were overly weighted toward suburban families, that segment remains a significant target today. So midweek matches remain a tough sell in some markets, and weak crowds create a drag on the entire enterprise, including sponsor and media interest. Plus, it's just a bummer when we have to see empty seats on TV -- although we're sure to see plenty of them over 35 Sunday fixtures.

Of notable importance on Wednesday's release is a small reduction of matches during a few international fixture dates. Major League Soccer's reluctance to eliminate, or at least reduce, the number of contests on those dates has long been a sore tooth for fans and for U.S. Soccer. MLS commissioner Don Garber had indicated some willingness to compromise, although the reduction in matches on the new schedule is minimal. So expect critics to keep rubbing on that sore tooth. Ouch.

For instance, the U.S. national team plays an important pair of qualifiers Sept. 5 and 9. Those will be match days 7 and 8 in final-stage CONCACAF qualifying -- or what will be known as serious "Yikes!" time if Bob Bradley's squad hasn't by then created some margin for error in the reach for South Africa 2010. His team faces El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago as qualifying winds down.

Meanwhile, playoff tension will be escalating simultaneously in MLS, as an all-time high seven clubs will be left behind the velvet ropes for the 2009 postseason party. Clubs will want their best players available and will certainly have a bone of contention if their difference-makers are away on international duty.

So MLS will lighten the load, with just three matches between Aug. 30 and Sept. 12. Of course, most first-tier associations around the world will eliminate matches altogether during that period.

Major League Soccer will also play a reduced schedule during the second weekend of October, as qualifying culminates around the world. The league has avoided scheduling the Galaxy during the September and October windows, so David Beckham won't have to miss MLS matches -- assuming he's still the No. 23 for the Los Angeles at that time and not the No. 32 for AC Milan.

MLS will play right through other qualifier dates, however. For instance, the Americans travel to Costa Rica on June 3 and then play host to Honduras on June 6 (match days 4 and 5 in final-stage World Cup qualifying). Between June 4-7 (Thursday through Sunday), MLS will play a full slate of eight matches. The Red Bulls will actually play twice during that time.

The league gets its first championship-game rematch June 27, when Juan Carlos Osorio's Red Bulls visit Crew Stadium.

Tougher matches will have already come and gone by then for Osorio's men. Highlights on the Revenge on Red Bull tour include April 11, when New York makes its 2009 visit to Houston, and a week later when Real Salt Lake comes calling on Giants Stadium. Houston and RSL were both heavily favored in their playoff meetings with New York last fall but became the unexpected chalk outlines as the Red Bulls advanced to MLS Cup 2008 instead.

Of course, the way MLS plays out competitively, matches in April or May really don't say much about who lands in the late-November championship. Still, early contests to monitor include D.C. United's visit to the Galaxy on opening weekend, our first chance to see if Bruce Arena finally has the compass pointed in the right direction at the Home Depot Center. Other early matches of note include the Chicago Fire's visit to RFK a week later and the initial installment of the SoCal SuperClasico on April 11 (Galaxy vs. Chivas USA).

The league opener should be fun, as always, even if recovering Sounders DP Freddie Ljungberg isn't quite ready to contribute. The Red Bulls' mid-March visit to Qwest Field marks an earlier-than-usual start time; MLS has moved its opening weekend forward about two weeks this year to help stave off fixture congestion later in the year.

Columbus visits Qwest Field to do battle with Seattle for the first time May 30. Don't you know Sounders manager Sigi Schmid, who left Columbus in December, will want that one badly? And with nearly 19,000 season-ticket holders, all presumably hopped up on strong Northwest coffee, the big yard just beyond downtown will surely be rocking.

San Jose will be Seattle's closest regional rival, at least until Portland can land a team. Besides, as expansion sides that join the league just a year apart, there's a bit more to say about any natural Seattle-San Jose acrimony and jealousy than just logistics. So June 13 is another date to circle, when the clubs meet for the first time at Qwest.

The dreaded Thursday-Sunday combo is back in MLS, a byproduct of the odd number of teams this year. These things are as much fun as a cold sore for clubs that must travel on the back half of them. With reduced rosters, expect to hear a fresh round of carping every time a club gets hammered with one of these tough assignments.

For instance, Columbus plays at Real Salt Lake on Thursday, April 2. Three nights later, new Crew manager Robert Warzycha will walk his men into the Home Depot Center to face Chivas USA, which will be rested and waiting.

Columbus, in fact, will begin its title defense with three of its first four on the road. That's by design. The earlier start date added emphasis to Major League Soccer's standard practice of minimizing games in cold-weather venues early in the calendar.

The other unfortunate byproduct of an odd number of sides is the rhythm-destroying idle week, which occurs sporadically through the campaign. Kansas City, for instance, will be idle during the first weekend of May, with nine days off before a Wednesday, May 6 match.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.


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