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It’s time for MLS to black out FIFA dates

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MLS is hurting its own product by forcing teams to play nearly 20 percent of their seasons without their best players.

Soccer: CONCACAF Gold Cup-Mexico at USA Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, MLS players are put in the rather unenviable position of having to make a virtually impossible choice. Do they heed the call of their national team, or insist on sticking it out with their club team?

In recent years, MLS has tried to mitigate that problem by giving teams the option of scheduling around FIFA international windows. Teams like the Seattle Sounders have opted to do that as much as possible.

But in years like this one where various summer tournaments require players to be with their national teams for as long as six weeks, virtually every team in the league has been impacted by call-ups, regardless of their best scheduling efforts.

This weekend, for instance, the Sounders will visit the Colorado Rapids for a match that had originally been scheduled in April only to be snowed out. In total, MLS will play nine matches featuring 15 different teams that will be impacted by this FIFA window.

As unenviable of a choice players on those teams face, the reality is that the vast majority of players will join their national teams whenever they’re invited.

“I saw Michael Bradley comment on it and say that’s one of the tough parts of this league is that we play through the international breaks,” Sounders winger Jordan Morris said following Sunday’s game. “It’s true, teams lose a lot of players. For me, I would never take a call-up for granted. It’s such an honor for me to represent this country. Every time it’s such a special experience. Of course, I wish there weren’t games during international breaks but for me it’s such an amazing opportunity and such an honor.”

This conflict is only becoming more acute with the influx of Targeted Allocation Money and high-level academy players signed to first-team rosters. The Sounders, for instance, will be missing 10 players for this weekend’s game and that’s without regular national teamers Nicolás Lodeiro (Uruguay) and Román Torres (Panama) being called in. It’s also probably fair to say that Danny Leyva would have been named to the USA U17 roster under normal circumstances. That’s fully half of the Sounders’ outfield players who find themselves regularly in contention for their respective national teams.

While the Sounders may be an extreme outlier, there are plenty of other teams who will be missing a significant number of players. Even the Rapids — who have the third lowest point total in MLS — will be missing several players, including their two leading scorers.

Players are well aware of the issue, but asking them to turn down call-ups — even in a situation like this where they are fighting for playoff position — is deeply unfair.

Rather than expecting players to do something, the only long term solution is for MLS to formally break during international windows. That would mean not just scheduling around the breaks, but considering the days blacked out in case a game has to be moved, as happened with this Sounders match.

There’s no denying that this would make the schedule even more complicated than it already is. The current 34-game MLS season is already condensed into approximately 32 weeks. That’s shortened from previous years in an effort to avoid holding the playoffs during an international window. MLS teams also have to figure out how to fit in Concacaf Champions League, U.S. Open Cup, and now the Leagues Cup into the existing midweek dates.

Blacking out international dates would come with a cost. This year there were three international windows during the regular season, plus three additional weekends for the Gold Cup and Copa America. Conservatively, MLS would probably need to effectively create three or four more weekends available to play matches. The solution probably would require two parts: Starting the season a week or two earlier and cutting the season down to 32 matches.

The first part would definitely be a challenge for teams in colder weather climates. One way to mitigate that would be having them play their first two to three matches on the road. It’s not an ideal solution — nor one guaranteed to avoid inclement weather as the April Rapids match illustrated — but it’s also not exactly a massive hardship.

The second part would be a bigger problem for owners, who suddenly lose out on two gates and would potentially have less inventory to sell to broadcasters. But next year MLS will have as many as 13 teams playing in either Champions League or Leagues Cup, simply including those otherwise sparsely attended matches in season-ticket packages would essentially make up for the loss in regular-season matches. The other 13 teams could easily replace the lost gate revenue by including U.S. Open Cup matches in their packages.

These may not be ideal solutions, but MLS simply cannot continue to play through FIFA windows. Some sacrifice is going to be inevitable and this beats putting out a substandard product for nearly 20 percent of the season.