By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 15, 2020) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer’s calendar has never been particularly consistent. Back when the league launched in 1996, MLS was a 10-team competition that started its schedule in the first week of April and crowned a champion by the end of October. Twenty years later, America’s top division played a season that stretched across ten months. In 2020, the league kicked off earlier than it ever had before, with regular-season games taking play in February for the first time.
The shifting window of the season also impacted the league’s annual player acquisition process. Under FIFA guidelines, every domestic club competition has two transfer windows. The offseason window and a midseason period when teams can sign players from outside of the league.
While most acquisitions happened between seasons, MLS brought in new names during the summer from the beginning. A host of top-level leagues around the world follow the Fall-to-Spring calendar. That put Major League Soccer’s midseason transfer window in the European offseason.
All-time MLS great Jaime Moreno didn’t join DC United in the league’s inaugural season until midway through the club’s championship year. Moreno’s timing set a precedent in MLS, but it would take over a decade for major summer signings to become the norm.
The introduction of the Designated Player rule in 2007 amplified the impact of the summer window. MLS teams still did plenty of lower-level business and bolstered their fortunes with additions who cost less than the threshold for DP status. However, tt was the famous DP player that drew attention and lifted the league’s reputation around the world.
Recent examples include Wayne Rooney, who joined DC United during the summer of 2018 and lifted his new club on- and off-the-field. That signing was transformative for a once-proud MLS franchise that languished behind its rivals in several areas. Bringing the Premier League star to MLS midseason might not have been ideal. Still, it created a major story that reset expectations.
Even when summer arrivals don’t measure up to the marquee star power of Rooney, they can make a massive difference for their clubs. The Seattle Sounders used the summer window to great effect when they signed Uruguayan attacker Nicolas Lodeiro in 2016. The Sounders improved dramatically following a terrible first half of the campaign in large because of Lodeiro. Seattle went on to win the club’s first MLS Cup with Lodeiro as the key figure.
To put it mildly, the 2020 MLS calendar is a little out of whack. The suspension of the season has now extended past the originally planned closing of the primary transfer window. That denied clubs the ability to shore up their rosters in the initial few months of the campaign. Though without games, the pressure to get better is all but missing. Travel restrictions and social distancing mandates have made business as usual impossible. Some clubs held off on making moves while the collective bargaining process played out, leaving them very little time to recruit and negotiate signings before the pandemic shutdown.
MLS lost its primary window while many leagues in Europe are scrambling to complete their seasons ahead of the usual summer primary window for their next season. No one yet knows how the pandemic will affect the economics of the market. Allowances need to happen with the distorted schedule.
FIFA issued guidance in early April. Contracts for players, typically set to end just after the end of the domestic campaign, can be extended through the makeup period. In that same statement, the sports global governing body also pointed to possible adjustments of upcoming transfer windows.
“FIFA will be flexible and will allow the relevant transfer windows to be moved so they fall between the end of the old season and the start of the new season,” it read. “At the same time, FIFA will try to ensure, where possible, an overall level of coordination and will also bear in mind the need to protect the regularity, integrity, and proper functioning of competitions, so that the sporting results of any competition are not unfairly disrupted.”
While FIFA’s statement addresses the problem many clubs in Europe will have this summer, it doesn’t clarify much for MLS. It follows that MLS would get the same considerations as the European leagues, although in the inverse. Rather than the transfer window shifting to accommodate the period between seasons, it would be the midseason window that would move for the North American competition.
MLS needs its summer window to line up with the offseason in Europe if the annual exercise of bringing in summer reinforcements is going to continue. There’s no chance at a Rooney or a Loderi if those players are still in-season.
The league continues to push the envelope on spending and ambition. It’s more able to attract in-demand talent than ever before. The pandemic could halt all of that momentum.
Summer signings make MLS more interesting. In the likely scenario that MLS rosters are stretched to their breaking point by difficult playing conditions and a compacted schedule, the absence of reinforcements will be noticeable. At issue is competitive balance. Big-spending clubs, expansion clubs, and clubs known for market savvy and late-season runs may not have options. Clubs with less ambition or resources could benefit. Nothing is sure.
The bigger question is how this year’s global crisis will change the player market for MLS beyond 2020. Other than wild speculation, what we can safely assume now is that it won’t be the same.
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- Picking a favorite as the Bundesliga season resumes
- Europe considers its club calendar
- Legendary status in MLS
Photo courtesy of DC United – ISIPhotos.com