(Friday, January 2, 2009) -- Christmas has passed and the New Year has arrived, yet Major League Soccer has not yet announced more than the schedule of its 15 teams' home openers as the league continues to wrestle with how to schedule next season to avoid conflicts with World Cup qualifying matches. This problem has existed since the league's inception in 1996 and has stripped teams of key players at critical times.
MLS will have an unbalanced schedule in 2009 with the addition of Seattle Sounders FC, bringing the Western Conference to eight teams while the Eastern Conference remains at seven. In the 30-match regular season, each team will face every other club twice -- home and away -- while playing one addition home game and one road match against conference rivals.
The most critical issue in scheduling is how to avoid international match days set aside for World Cup qualifiers. In 2009, five weekends included in international governing body FIFA's international match calendar with the others coming either midweek or before the MLS season begins. Commissioner Don Garber said, "We're trying to schedule away from as many international dates as we can, but it's an impossibility to schedule away from them all."
Or is it? MLS's regular schedule season ran 31 weekends in 2008 (March 29-October 26). This year, by starting a week earlier (March 21), it would seem there are enough weekends - if some midweek games are scheduled -- to complete the regular season, three weekends of playoffs and then MLS Cup, and still finish before Thanksgiving without conflicting with FIFA fixture dates on weekends.
So far, the MLS response has been to agree that clubs will be able to opt out of two weekend games or play a reduced schedule during a four-week stretch in the summer.
A big problem looms with a FIFA fixture window set for November 14-18, which will come right in the middle of the MLS playoffs. The league might get lucky if the United States manages to qualify early for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, as well as other countries who have national-team players in MLS. Just as likely, the opposite might happen and teams could be stripped of some of their best players at critical times
Looking back at other changes for the 2009 season, most noticeably MLS teams will have their rosters reduced by four to 24. The amount of senior players will be increased from 18 to 20, but the number of developmental players will be cut to four from 10. Players not counting against the salary cap, such as Gerneration adidas players, will count as developmental players.
No announcement was made as to the size of the salary cap or whether it will be increased from the $2.3 million of 2008. Senior players earn a minimum of $34,000, while developmental players were paid $12,9000 or $17,700 in 2008.
The reduction of roster size brought an end to MLS's reserve league after four seasons.
The playoff format will change slightly with the top two teams in each conference qualifying with the next four teams with the best records. In 2008, the top three from each conference qualified automatically.
The four MLS teams in the 2009-10 CONCACAF Champions League (to determine the titlist for the region including North America, Central America and the Caribbean) are the Columbus Crew (2008 MLS Cup winner), Houston Dynamo (2008 Supporters Shield runnerup for best record behind Columbus), New York Red Bulls (MLS Cup runnerup) and D.C. United (Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup winner).
The Chicago Fire, New England Revolution, Kansas City Wizards and Chivas USA will compete in Superliga 2009 (the third tournament between U.S. and Mexican clubs). These teams had the best 2008 regular-season records among teams not qualified for the Champions League.
For the first time, teams were not allowed to compete in the Champions League and the Superliga.
All 14 American-based MLS teams will compete in the U.S. Open Cup.
"We have thoroughly reviewed our competitive format to ensure that it provides the right framework to continue the progress MLS has made in recent years," Garber said when he announced the changes. "There are many factors to be considered and balanced, none of which can be considered in isolation. We believe we are striking the proper balance."