By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 21 2016) US Soccer Players – Germany’s Bundesliga, regarded by many as the highest quality soccer league on the planet Earth, will wrap up its 2016 schedule with a slate of five matches on Wednesday. Those games include a top-of-the-table clash between one of the biggest clubs in the world, Bayern Munich, and the upstart corporate-backed team pushing them for first place, RB Leipzig. When the league adjourns for the year, there’s a decent chance a club no one expected will be leading the way. That’s something Bayern Munich will have to wait 29 days to rectify.
The end of the 2016 schedule heralds the beginning of the league’s annual winter break. That’s a month-long interlude that helps the Bundesliga avoid some of the coldest weather central Europe has to offer. The break is often mentioned as a positive feature of the Bundesliga’s season. It’s a respite from the grind of the league for players that leaves them fresher at the end of the season. It also gets credit for giving Germany’s National Team an advantage in summer tournaments. Their domestic players aren’t quite as exhausted.
Germany’s winter break stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by other top leagues around Europe. The Premier League goes in the opposite direction. They schedule more games in rapid succession this time of year. Clubs will play three times in as little as three days over the holiday stretch. It’s a gauntlet of competition that tests teams on their way to titles, Champions League berths, and escaping the drop.
For Bundesliga fans, the break can be an interminable period of inactivity. Even coaches complain. When Pep Guardiola was at Bayern Munich he called the break “boring”. It’s only in a country both accustomed to the break and crazy enough about the game that a long winter break could work.
German soccer authorities have seen fit to tweak the break over the years. The break was partly a response to bad soccer on icy fields that turned away fans. At one point, the break was a whopping 70 days. Recent years have seen reductions move the break from six weeks to four. The winter in Germany is somewhat unpredictable, but the reasoning built around cold weather is sound. Don’t play in the worst of it, but don’t design the schedule completely with the weather in mind.
For a league like MLS, there’s pressure to follow the European example. Those pushing for a European style calendar point to the winter break. Get rid of the worst of winter, at least in theory. Considering that MLS plays through the worst of summer, it’s one or the other. The upside is preventing any issues with summer international tournaments. Add to that aligning with the transfer windows and international breaks.
That’s in theory. In practice, it means trying to convince crowds to watch Major League Soccer in winter. There’s no break that will avoid the worst of the weather across North America. It also means more competition with the rest of the North American pro sports. In the middle of summer, it’s only baseball. In the middle of winter, it’s everybody else. It doesn’t make enough business sense. It may also make more sense than how Europe does it.
MLS followed the original NASL’s example with scheduling. They made a practical choice. It could end up seeming visionary. MLS and other leagues playing through the summer might end up on the right side of the shifting future of the game.
We know that there’s a winter World Cup scheduled for Qatar in 2022. Already, influential European soccer figures are pondering the idea of swapping the current fall-spring club calendar for one the closely resembles Major League Soccer’s. To take advantage of better weather through the summer and to build-in flexibility for various international tournaments, Bayern Munich executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has advocated for a season swap.
The problem of conflicting transfer windows might not be a problem much longer, either. There’s a movement both among fans and FIFPro, the international soccer players union, to eliminate the windows and allow transfers year round. The argument goes that the windows artificially inflate fees. That feeds into the financial dominance of the English Premier League and lines the pockets of owners. Clubs outside of England who want a chance to compete for the signatures of prized players without the squeeze of the window have also advocated for and end to the windows.
For now, Germany will take its break and MLS will fill up its winter offseason with various flavors of drafts. Different schedules, different approaches for countries with different soccer priorities. If those priorities shift, there might be a day when both those priorities, and their schedules, align.
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