Major League Soccer teams’ ability to cope with the demands of new international competitions is under scrutiny after two games on Wednesday highlighted the consequences of a crowded schedule.
The league’s star attraction, Lionel Messi, was forced to sit out Inter Miami’s U.S. Open Cup final with Houston Dynamo along with his Spanish teammate Jordi Alba, frustrating fans and viewers globally.
Shortly after that game in Fort Lauderdale was won by Houston, MLS champions Los Angeles FC were playing for another title on the West Coast when they faced Mexican club Tigres in the Campeones Cup.
The game was organised by MLS but the league’s commissioner Don Garber wasn’t at the match, as he watched the Miami game. The Campeones Cup, an annual contest between the MLS and Mexican Liga MX champions introduced in 2018, ended in a goalless draw with Tigres winning after a penalty shoot-out.
It was the third competition this season bringing together MLS and Liga MX clubs following the CONCACAF Champions League and the new 47-team Leagues Cup – both of which LAFC had already competed in.
With the traditional domestic knockout competition, the U.S. Open Cup, the 34-game MLS regular season and the expanded post-season MLS Cup playoffs, with potentially six more games, there is little time for rest and recovery.
LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo believes it is time that MLS changed its rules on salaries and squad size to allow clubs to operate with a bigger pool of players.
“I can tell you the rules and regulations of MLS roster building are not ample enough, and we are not equipped enough for all these competitions,” he said after the Tigres match.
“I think we have done an incredible job to stay in all competitions very late, but our guys are depleted, our stadium ops is tired, everybody in the organization is tired. Maybe this is too many games, or maybe we don’t have enough people to cover all these games,” added Cherundolo.
“I do think the owners and the commissioner and the rest of the league office need to sit down and come up with solutions because status quo is not going to work. I do know that, and I can tell you that’s the opinion of many other coaches, as well,” he said.
While other leagues can at least rest some players during the international breaks, MLS even squeezes in fixtures while top players are away with their national sides. The congestion is coming from outside of MLS too.
For national team players, the CONCACAF Nations League finals were held in June with the confederation’s Gold Cup the following month.
Next year, an expanded Copa America, which will feature many MLS players, will be held in the USA and in 2025 there will be another Gold Cup running alongside the expanded 32-team FIFA Club World Cup, which could feature two MLS teams.
Quite how the Leagues Cup will fit into that schedule remains to be seen but that tournament, which produced 77 games in less than a month, certainly has impacted this year’s winners Miami.
Messi made his debut against Cruz Azul on 21st July and played seven games including the August 19 final in Nashville.
He played four more matches, ending with a cross-coast trip to Los Angeles,before flying off to play a World Cup qualifier in Buenos Aires. It is not only Messi and his injured teammate Jordi Alba who have struggled of late.
Coach Gerardo Martino described his team as “spent” after their loss to Houston on Wednesday and had no doubt that a price has been paid for their thrilling Leagues Cup run. “The reality is that we were eventually going to suffer the consequences of playing so many games”.
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