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It Seems To Me . . .

Conflicts abound for MLS throughout its fifth season, playoffs.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, March 3, 2000) -- Saturday, September 2 is scheduled to be a busy day for Major League Soccer. It will also be a busy day elsewhere in the soccer world which could cause MLS teams, particularly league champ D.C. United, to lose many key players.

The New England Revolution will be visiting D.C. United, the MetroStars are slated to be in Florida to play the Fusion. The Colorado Rapids will be in Chicago taking on the Fire. The Tampa Bay Mutiny will be in Kansas City facing the Wizards. And the Columbus Crew will be out west visiting the San Jose Earthquakes.

Only the Dallas Burn and Los Angeles Galaxy will have the day off.

Although CONCACAF has not formally announced its schedule, it would appear the United States will be playing its first World Cup qualifier that Saturday or Sunday. Ditto the other CONCACAF semifinalists.

The U.S. Olympic teams, men (if they qualify) and women, will be arriving in Australia to prepared for the Summer Games, starting eight days hence. All South Americans teams will be playing World Cup qualifiers. In Europe, some very early qualifiers will take place and, as long scheduled, most European nations will play tune-up matches, their first since the end of the Euro 2000.

For more than a year, September 2-3 has been on the books as an off-day for all European and South American professional leagues. Because so many CONCACAF teams now utilize players based in Europe, the federation of North America, Central America and the Caribbean is under heavy pressure to schedule its first semifinal round World Cup qualifiers for the September off day.

CONCACAF will almost certainly agree. The South American confederation, CONMEBOL, has already agreed and has scheduled qualifiers. So where does this leave MLS? It is very possible that D.C. United will have to take the field missing nine or 10 starters. Almost every other MLS club will be missing key players. Yet this will also likely be a make-or-break period for some of those same clubs, who will be faced with winning or not making the playoffs.

Under FIFA rules, national teams may request players five days before a World Cup qualifier. For the Olympics, a player could be gone a full month. This means that not only is there a problem for the MLS matches September 2, but also for the full slate of matches Wednesday, August 30. National team players will likely miss those matches also.

Wait, it gets worse. Europe and South America are also going to stand down on Wednesday, October 10. So CONCACAF and other federations will be scheduling World Cup qualifiers on that date also. But MLS will be deep into its playoff schedule, with MLS Cup 2000 five days away. Again it is more than theoretically possible that D.C. United could be forced to field an almost all-reserve team for a critical third match in the best-of-three conference final, and the other three participants will be missing their best players.

Actually, U.S. coach Bruce Arena would be within his rights to call up players before Saturday, October 7. If he did, MLS teams still in the playoffs could lose players for two of the conference final matches.

Also a problem is U.S. Soccer Federation's U.S. Cup competition on the first two weekends of June. U.S. Soccer and MLS cooperated in scheduling, but only to the extent of guaranteeing that certain MLS stadiums would be available to host matches. This means that MLS teams with national team players will lose those players for at least two and possibly three league matches.

How has this come about? World governing body FIFA has worked to develop an international schedule all federations and all professional leagues can agree on. The idea is that certain dates will be blocked out on the calendar for international competitions and none of the professional leagues will schedule regular league matches for those dates. The intended result is the club-versus-country conflicts will be avoided, or at least lessened.

MLS, however, is out of sync with the rest of the soccer world in that the league starts in March, plays through the heat of summer, and finishes up in October with the only time off at the All-Star break. The league believes for operational reasons (using so many NFL stadiums) it must play a spring-summer schedule and for marketing reasons it can't afford to shut down for even a single weekend. But in doing so it is courting disaster when the rest of the world moves to a unified schedule and large numbers of international matches are scheduled for the same day that MLS is trying to maintain business as usual.

One FIFA official who is aware of MLS and its insistence it must play every weekend commented "a bit arrogant, what."

It will be interesting to see what happens on September 2, if as expected, CONCACAF plays World Cup qualifiers. Maybe D.C. United will be having an off year and need a win over much improved New England for a playoff berth. Maybe the Revs will be locked in a close race for a playoff spot with four other clubs, who will be less than thrilled that New England gets to face a weakened United.

How much worse might it be if the same situation occurs on October 7, with the league down to four teams fighting for a place in MLS Cup 2000?

In our next column, we'll look at how FIFA is trying to accomplish its unified schedule, the problems it is facing and how, possibly, the rest of the world will eventually have to get in sync with MLS.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at

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