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Severe MLS headache over World Cup, Olympic conflicts is somewhat eased.By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Thursday, May 4, 2000) -- We finally know that he United States Olympic team is Sydney-bound in September and the full national team will play six World Cup semifinal qualififiers in 2000.
The schedules present some good news -- and some bad news -- for Major League Soccer.
The good news simply is it could have been worse, a lot worse. At one point, there was the possibility that the U.S. would have to play two World Cup qualifying matches in September. This would have meant that MLS teams would have lost national-team players for most of the playoffs. That also would have meant that World Cup qualifying would have conflicted with the Olympics.
A number of nations from CONCACAF, the region of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, will have players on both squads, including the U.S. with midfielders Ben Olsen and John O'Brien, defender Steve Cherundolo, and possibly striker Chris Albright, should he be called into World Cup qualifying. Then add to that one-to-three "overage" players who will called in to the Olympic effort that also play for the full national team and there is plenty of potential for conflict.
To minimize the disruption, there will only be one World Cup qualifier in September, early in the month, before both the Olympics and the MLS playoffs begin. The bad new, of course, is that while it could have been worse, it will be bad enough.
First, the Olympics. The opening date for men's soccer is September 13. The U.S. will not know its exact schedule until a blind draw in Sydney on June 3 (June 2 in the U.S.). But the U.S. squad will have to arrive in Australia sometime around September 9, and U.S. coach Clive Charles is likely to call his team into camp a full 10 days before the first match he is allowed. So MLS teams will be missing their Olympians for the last two matches of the season, and if the U.S makes it into the quarterfinals, at least the first playoff round and possibly into the second round.
In addition, Charles says he will try to play at least two friendlies during the summer, so the Olympians will miss a couple of other MLS weeks as well.
As far as World Cup qualifying goes, CONCACAF's schedule presents two big problems for MLS. The worst, potentially, revolves around the fifth semifinal match which will be played between October 7-11. Saturday, October 7 would be the final match of an MLS semifinal playoff round if the semifinals go their full three matches. If the World Cup qualifier were held as late in the window as possible, Wednesday the 11th, it would be four days before the MLS Cup championship in Washington. So participants would run the risk of having either missing or exhausted players.
The second big problem will occur in July when the CONCACAF schedule calls for two World Cup qualifying matches. Given that players will be called into camp well ahead of the first match, and the call-up period for the second match all but overlaps the first CONCACAF qualifier, teams with national-team players could well lose them from July 4 until the MLS All-Star break. July 28-30.
Also, it is not only the United States that will be calling in MLS players for international duty. Many MLS teams have players who are in other countries' player pools, including a few playing for South American countries, which are having their World Cup qualifiers at the same time.
So MLS has a problem. In a departure from past practices, the league is acknowledging the problem, and that something is going to have to be done about it. In the past, when players have missed key matches because of national team commitments. MLS's posture has been to have virtually ignore the situation. But, this time it appears the league is trying to find some solution. MLS officials have already met with Bruce Arena trying the find ways to lessen the problem.
One answer would be to try to find some way of assuring the playoffs will end by about October 4. Right now, final details for the playoffs have not been completed. The league plans for the first two rounds to be three-match affairs with teams being awarded points as they are in the regular season: three for a win, one for a draw, none for a loss.
What remains to be decided is what to do if, after the third match, the two teams have the same number of points. Or in other words, if each team has a victory and a tie or if all three matches end in draws. Depending on things such as television commitments, the thought is to play a 30 minute mini-match, and then if still tied, go to penalty kicks.
One suggestion to speed up the playoffs is to go to a European-style two match, home-and-home, aggregate goals format. MLS executive vice president of operations Ivan Gazidis says that while it is not inconceivable the format will be changed, that is not being discussed, at least not yet. "The only thing that is undecided is what happens at the end of regulation time in the third game of a playoff series if its tied," he said. "Everything else has been set. I haven't heard any suggestions that we would change the format. It's not inconceivable that the World Cup scheduling difficulties can be a factor, but that hasn't been an issue."
One conflict will be avoided because Arena has agreed not to call players into camp for the qualifier scheduled in the U.S. on Wednesday, August 16, until after the MLS matches on Saturday, August 12. That only leaves the July problem, which might involve moving some matches.
Arena "has been terrific doing the things he can do to avoid scheduling problems," Gazadis said. "Clearly, we don't want our most important playoff games affected by the qualifying, which may mean not having our games on the (October 7-8 weekend). The good news is that it will be a home (qualifying) match, so if there are national team players who will be in MLS Cup the travel should be reasonable."
One MLS general manager is satisfied with the schedule. "We could have had two (World Cup) matches during the playoffs and that would have completely screwed up everything," said D.C. United's Kevin Payne. "There are two matches in July, but we'll have to deal with that."
One problem for United is that a just-announced and long-anticipated friendly against Englandís Premier League side Newcastle has been scheduled on July 22. That is probably the same day the U.S. will face Costa Rica.
"That's a shame," Payne said. "Especially since we asked MLS six months ago to leave us that Saturday free for a exhibition. But we'll field the best team we can."
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Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..