Jordan Morris and Clint Dempsey will miss the Seattle Sounders’ next two league games after getting called up to the United States national team. While we’ve grown accustomed to losing players to international duty over the years, rarely has there been a situation quite like this.
That’s because those two games are being played outside the international window.
Like many other MLS teams, the Sounders have made efforts to avoid situations exactly like this. In order to play through fewer international windows, they’ve started playing more midweek games, like today’s against the Columbus Crew. In fact, there are four midweek league games scheduled this week. There are a total of four players from three teams who were called into the USMNT early and will miss those games, as well as the ones over the weekend.
This is all because U.S. Soccer chose to effectively use this week as a de facto training camp for a pair of upcoming World Cup qualifiers, both of which will be played at altitude. To help in that training, the USMNT has been in Colorado this week and will be playing a friendly against Venezuela at Rio Tinto Stadium. It’s all part of a plan that was hatched long ago and shared with MLS officials, possibly as far back as January, when Bruce Arena apparently discussed it with team representatives.
Knowing that the Mexico game was coming at a tough time in the schedule — just a few weeks after European players finished their seasons and in the middle of the MLS campaign — Arena wanted to do everything possible to make sure his players were fit. In addition to having them together for two full weeks before the game, Arena also wanted them to spend that time getting used to playing at high elevations. In a vacuum, it makes a ton of sense.
As we know, nothing in soccer actually occurs in a vacuum.
The collateral damage ends up being MLS, specifically the three teams most affected by losing players early. The Sounders are, arguably, the team most adversely affected as they are losing their top two forwards at a time when they are already missing their third best. But the Houston Dynamo (DeMarcus Beasley) and Real Salt Lake (Nick Rimando) will also be without key starters, seemingly for no particularly good reason.
There is a theoretical scenario where these teams could have simply refused to release their players and forced them to remain with the team until the FIFA window opened on June 5. It seems none of them were prepared to make that bold decision and suffer whatever consequences may have come with it. It’s also notable that, as far as I can tell, no MLS team has ever taken this extreme action.
Many teams have, however, worked with U.S. Soccer and found compromises on when and if to call players up.
This seemed like a situation ripe for such a compromise, and it’s rather shocking that a coach with such strong MLS ties didn’t try harder to find one. Arena could have simply allowed players who had midweek games to remain with their teams a few extra days. In all likelihood that would have hindered those players’ ability to participate in the friendly, slightly diminishing the entire point of having that game. It’s also possible that having three fewer days to get used to the altitude would have some negative effects on their physical preparedness for the Mexico game — although the science on that isn’t exactly clear — but it hardly seems an unreasonable ask.
There was even another potential solution: Taking Dempsey — who Arena is probably planning to start in both World Cup qualifiers — and leaving the other three players, none of whom are likely to start either of those games.
Mexico — the only other CONCACAF team playing outside the FIFA window — apparently made an even bigger compromise, as Giovani Dos Santos will remain with the Galaxy through their game on Saturday against D.C. United.
I understand that this comes at some cost to the USMNT’s preparation. But MLS does not simply exist to serve U.S. Soccer interests and vice-versa. Ideally, they work symbiotically and help prop up one another. This particular situation, though, seems to have only taken U.S. Soccer interests into consideration with MLS teams left to pick up the pieces.
In all of this, I can’t help but wonder what Arena’s reaction would have been if Jurgen Klinsmann had done something similar to him during his LA Galaxy tenure. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have been particularly understanding.