By J Hutcherson (Aug 24, 2021) US Soccer Players – We’re already well into an era of change across world soccer. From the Nations League concept started in Europe and embraced by Concacaf to World Cup expansion to FIFA’s delayed Club World Cup revamp. UEFA alone has now added a third European club competition with yet another Champions League revamp looming. Last month, CAF made a new African Super League a reality. Add to that FIFA considering staging the World Cup every other year. The pressure on the calendar can’t help but become the issue because of its limitations. As obvious as it should sound, there’s only so much space.
Last April’s announcement of The Super League was a surprise due to timing and scope as much as anything else. The elite clubs considering an option they would own wasn’t exactly shocking. Many had predicted a true breakaway European league since at least the late 1990s. It’s a logical concept, with other parts of Europe likely to consider similar should it ever happen.
Why it hasn’t yet is part of the moving pieces in European soccer. Predict a European super league and go ahead and push forward some plan for a world league. The elite clubs play each other in a model that increases revenue. Or, as AP’s Rob Harris quoted FIFA president Gianni Infantino, “You don’t need to be an Einstein to know that if you have two World Cups in four years you will double the revenues.”
This is normally where the argument for supporter fatigue goes along with references to gooses and golden eggs. Stakeholders may already be past that, creating more because to them the financial gains are so clear. That seems to be happening across the sport, a push towards what comes next.
Which brings us to Wednesday night’s MLS All-Star Game. It’s the latest example of the special relationship between Major League Soccer and their good friends Liga MX. Liga MX officials have taken to floating the idea of an eventual merger with MLS in public. No one, and certainly not MLS, is committing to a timeline, but they’re also not dismissing the concept. Until one or both play down the idea, it will stay a point of discussion. That discussion tends to go something like this. What would that league look like? Would it appeal to fans of clubs in those two leagues? How would it account for so many MLS teams? Would it try to merge business models as well? Would expansion be possible?
It would be different and it’s a safe assumption it would also be lucrative. Right now, that seems to be the principle for the changes we’re seeing in soccer. Too many international friendlies? How about a Nations League. The biggest clubs in a region unhappy with a tournament? Revamp it as soon as television contracts allow. Need to revive a competition that hasn’t exactly caught on? Expand it and obligate additional participation. How that works when seemingly every aspect of the game wants more doesn’t have clear answers.
A tournament is not a league, something the members of The Super League stressed when trying to keep their place in their respective domestic leagues. UEFA squashing that plan wasn’t surprising, using the “not half in/half out” argument to great effect in reminding those clubs about European soccer’s established order. It’s a fair point, though how it might play elsewhere is a different question.
Concacaf is revamping its Champions League, bringing back the group stage for the 2023-24 edition. That returns the tournament to a major commitment over many matchdays. Like so much right now, it also adds to the load on the region’s top teams. It also stresses that Concacaf sees the Champions League as bigger than Liga MX vs MLS. Concacaf can obligate teams to participate, the rationale for MLS and Liga MX creating the Leagues Cup for teams lower down the table.
The Leagues Cup showed us what additional tournaments and revamps do to a club calendar. Midweek MLS is compounding schedules and leading to the type of coaches’ comments that are bordering on cliche. Everybody gets that some teams are playing more games closer together than others. With that is the safe assumption that all MLS teams will end up inconvenienced. That’s part of the game right now. It’s balancing the schedule and player availability in a playoff league with varying markers for success.
Interlace that with regional obligations and release windows for international duty, and designing the best competition becomes an issue. We may not be watching a season built on determining the best team in MLS as much as the best team able to cope. That’s not so much a criticism of a league that moves from the regular season to playoffs as it is stressing the situation.
That’s also an example of the broader issue for soccer to address sooner than later in this expansion era. There’s only so much room, so many games before all involved are playing at something different. Whether that’s better for the game is part of this broader work in progress.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Toronto and Austin at the bottom of the tables
- In changing times, PSG redefines the super club
- USMNT players face Championship scenarios
- The level of difficulty in the Octagonal
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