MLS and CONCACAF: Growing Together
By Robert Jonas
With another FIFA date upon us, and with international sides around the globe competing in confederation qualifying for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil, the imperfect saga that is Major League Soccer’s choice to not take a break in their season schedule has wrecked havoc on the rosters of 17 of the league’s 19 teams. In all, 39 MLS players from 15 nations have been called to action over the next few days and will miss their club competition.
No more is the sting of international absences felt than Sandy, Utah where Real Salt Lake bid farewell to five players from their squad.
Coupled with FC Dallas dropping three players themselves, the two sides will be missing nearly an entire starting line-up when they play tomorrow night in Frisco, Texas.
Another marquee match that has lost some of its luster will take place at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara. Visiting Seattle Sounders will miss out on a trio of attacking players while host San Jose Earthquakes sees their defensive core gutted.
Should the league allow such matches to continue when an inordinate number of reserves are required to be pressed into service on both sides of the field?
That question aside, and it is a question worthy of conveyance via an 800-pound gorilla, the real effect of MLS playing through a FIFA weekend is that some teams stand to gain a bit of ground on their more internationally represented foes. Perhaps, because MLS puts so little value on finishing at the top of the standings in the regular season and places most of its laurels on postseason success, the effect is insignificant. Qualify for the playoffs by hook or by crook — and expect to drop a few matches along the way.
After all, the Earthquakes cruised to a Supporters’ Shield winning season in 2012, but they were unceremoniously booted from the postseason by eventual MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy.
Perhaps a more interesting take on this weekend’s FIFA fixtures centers on what nations are represented by the 39 MLS players suiting up for their national teams.
Specifically, we should take notice of the 28 players that will be kicking a ball for a CONCACAF nation. Aside from Liga MX just south of the U.S. border, no other league in North and Central America is as well represented in this region when it comes to international players. And according to at least one MLS head coach, this is no accident.
“This league is styled to CONCACAF,” said Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop when earlier this week he discussed having to adjust to the loss of two key defenders to international duty. “I played in England, and we would come back and play in CONCACAF and it was a totally different game. It was not easy to adapt back and forth from the two styles.”
More and more players from within CONCACAF, with the notable exception of Mexico, are finding MLS to be a great training ground for the type of games they will see when they play for their national sides. CONCACAF has just started the last round of qualifying ahead of the World Cup — the aptly nicknamed “Hex” between the last six teams standing — that will continue throughout the rest of the year.
Staying in MLS instead of playing in for instance Europe allows many of these players to more easily join up with their fellow countrymen for various training camps throughout the year as well as to test themselves almost weekly against other talented players from the region.
“You play against the same players,” continued Yallop. “A lot of Hondurans, Americans, Canadians, they’re all in the region. Costa Ricans, Panamanians, Jamaicans: we have all those in our league. MLS is a melting point of CONCACAF and I think for players to excel in this league showing they can handle those kinds of players and systems, it’s great.”
Instead of complaining that MLS will play on through the FIFA weekend, look at the league with an understanding at how important it had become on the international stage. Perhaps with a bit of vision — narrowed by blinders ignoring the actual MLS matches that will go on as scheduled this weekend — setting the scene in context with the greater good of CONCACAF, these World Cup qualifiers can be watched in part as MLS All-Star games.
In the not so distant future the tipping point will be reached and MLS will be a major league with team rosters loaded with international players. But we’re not there yet, so be careful using that justification via forward thinking with paying ticket holders for the slate of 9 MLS games that want to see the league’s best players in action for their clubs. Still, don’t let them distract either from the so very important Hex games on that flank the MLS schedule.
With MLS and FIFA playing at the same time, especially for the fans in the stands and the supporters watching on television at home, rejoice and not revolt is the appropriate response. The growing pains of an emerging league will not always go unnoticed, but the path to success should be appreciated. With CONCACAF the breeding ground, MLS is on its way.