By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 13, 2021) US Soccer Players – Everyone knows the feeling. Way off in the distant future is something you need to plan for: attending a wedding, visiting family, maybe getting some important maintenance done on a house or car. There’s not going to be anything surprising about it when it arrives, and so there will be no excuse if you’re not ready.
But then time passes, and the calendar turns. The days bleed into one another. Before long, the event you were supposed to plan for has snuck up on you. Soon it looms like an ominous towering black cloud in the near distance, taunting you as it moves ever closer.
For most of us, the far-off thing we need to plan for will impact a handful of people. If the far-off thing is the World Cup and you’re a domestic league competition, that number rises considerably.
Let’s just start with a fact. As of this writing, the World Cup is 405 days away. For the first time in history, the tournament will take place in the northern hemisphere’s winter months. Whatever the reasons the FIFA selection committee awarded its biggest event to the small Persian Gulf nation, doing so necessitated a change to its timing.
Every iteration of the World Cup up until now happened during the summer months in the northern hemisphere. That calendar aligns well with the calendar of Europe’s top domestic competitions. Placing the tournament between the end of one season and the start of the next allowed players to go off to international duty for an extended period without interrupting the club campaign.
405 days works out to roughly 13 months before most of the soccer world turns its attention to proceedings in Qatar. That’s 13 months until the majority of leagues need to pause for the World Cup, an event that will pull away top players from competitions on every continent. Just over a year from the World Cup, it’s not exactly clear how those leagues will handle the break.
Reports out of England on Tuesday outlined a plan discussed by a gathering of Premier League leadership in London. Both the Premier League and the English Championship will break their seasons starting in the middle of November and return to play the day after Christmas for England’s traditional Boxing Day round of games. To help fit in games, the 2022-23 season will start a week earlier than usual and end a week later.
That means six weekends without Premier League soccer in a part of the season typically known for being one of the most intense of any campaign. November and December had a tendency to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Clubs that sit near the bottom of the table when the festive season portion of the schedule arrives often make dramatic changes to try and claw their way up the table in the second half of the season.
Putting aside what the extended pause will do to the rhythms of one domestic season, the adjustments necessary to accommodate the 2022 World Cup will put significant stress on the players. Premier League players will join their national teams a week before the World Cup begins. Those that make the final will have just eight days to recover before games resume in England.
Not every player will be affected at that level. That shouldn’t take away from concern over the placement of an ultra-intense competition sitting in the middle of the crucible of the Premier League. Top internationals will be burning the candle at both ends for a period that begins in August and runs into June. Those who also have Champions League soccer on their docket may play multiple games a week for the vast majority of the year, in addition to whatever involvement they have in the World Cup.
For Major League Soccer, the issue of the winter World Cup is a slightly different one. Because MLS begins its season in late winter/early spring and plays into the fall, the World Cup reconfigures the end of its season, not the middle. While the Premier League must contend with sending players off, breaking for an extended period, and resuming again soon after the World Cup, MLS will be in a race to complete its season by the time players leave for national team duty.
How will that work? So far, MLS hasn’t said. The league often waits almost as long as possible before releasing its season schedule. That’s a function of the complicated nature of putting together a season for such a large competition spread across such a vast physical distance and not completely in control of all of its venues.
MLS will introduce its 28th team in 2022 when Charlotte FC joins the league. Twenty-eight teams playing 34 matches across multiple time zones in two countries make for head-spinning logistics. In any other World Cup year, the league would pause for a period that covered the group stage matches, then resume once the event moved into the knockout rounds.
The simplest answer seems to be a February start, something MLS was planning before CBA negotiations pushed back the beginning of the 2021 campaign, with an early November MLS Cup. Without any competitive international break for Concacaf after March, the league won’t have to deal with as many distractions as in a normal season. There are some complicating scheduling factors, including the Concacaf Champions League, the US Open Cup, and the final “test” version of the Leagues Cup.
Qualified nations figure to play warm-up friendlies leading into the tournament. The FIFA calendar does include room for international games in June and September. If MLS is going to get its season done before the start of the World Cup in late November, there won’t be much room for breaks.
That might be just fine as MLS adds young talent to its ranks through foreign signings and development academies. Teams that built deeper squads through budget-friendly mechanisms will have an advantage during another compact schedule that taxes rosters and pushes players to the brink.
What we know right now is that the winter World Cup will change things next season. It’s the how that we’re waiting on. In Europe, it means a massive disruption in the middle of the season and a whiplash experience for players involved in the World Cup. It’s simpler for Major League Soccer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be better.
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