Russian Revolution Shouldn't be Inspiration for Major League Soccer
On Monday, Russian Football Union president Sergei Fursenko announced that the country's leagues will switch from the calendar-year season to the fall-to-spring season starting next year. Cue the would-be American soccer reformers and Eurosnobs, who argue that a similar switch in the U.S. would be beneficial to the game's growth at home. If Russia has seen the European light, then surely MLS should as well.
"The change of the championship to the 'autumn-spring' format will allow the Premier League to determine the national champion at the same time as the majority of European countries," Fursenko said. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Interestingly, players and Russia's second and third divisions are opposed to the move. The lower leagues claimed the nation's stadium infrastructure isn't suitable for staging games during a larger portion of the Russian winter, according to Reuters, while Agence France Presse said the players' union is "seriously concerned by the haste of the RFU decision to change the championship's format."
A poll of players at nine of the Premier League's 16 clubs resulted in 73 votes against the switch and 23 in favor. No surprise that taking a ball to the face in Moscow in late November isn't high on their list of ambitions. In Russia, ball heads you.
The change will happen anyway, of course, and certainly the transition of Europe's most important summer-schedule holdout to the fall-spring season will raise cries for a similar move by MLS.
Well, that move won't happen any time soon, mark these words.
First, the logistics. The 2011 Russian season will begin as scheduled next March and continue all the way through May 2012. There will be no champion next year. The following campaign will begin in August 2012 and run concurrent to the traditional European season.
In order to accommodate the harsh weather, the Russian league will take a three-month break in December, January and February. Those months currently constitute the offseason, which will switch to the summer. That means that the Russian schedule will be compressed into seven months. Clubs in the country's top division play 30 regular season games, and there are no playoffs.
Major League Soccer, meanwhile, likely will expand its regular season to 34 matches next year. That means each team will have its league games, plus the MLS Cup playoffs, to work into a schedule lasting about eight months. Much of North America deals with conditions that would make December-February games a non-starter. Therefore, a switch to a fall-spring format would force MLS franchises to compress at least 4-8 games more than their Russian counterparts into either the same amount of time they have now, or even less.
With U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League obligations, not to mention the fact that several clubs still share their stadiums with football teams, it's hard to imagine how that's going to work. MLS doesn't have the clout to add a 13th month to the calendar.
Soccer is very popular in Russia, and apparently the federation bosses believe that fans and media won't turn their backs on the sport during a three-month midseason break. Besides hockey and vodka, Russians don't have that many winter distractions. That isn't true in the U.S., where MLS competes with so many more sports for attention (the NFL, NHL and NBA all are in full swing during that period) and where generating momentum, story lines, interest and coverage already proves challenging. To voluntarily remove itself from its sliver of the spotlight for 2-3 months before resuming the season seems foolish at best, suicidal at worst.
MLS also would be ceding the summer. Perhaps games in August are as uncomfortable as games in November for fans in the stadium, but they're far more palpable to programmers and editors. Think MLS has trouble getting on SportsCenter now? Imagine how tough it's going to be when the competition is fiercer than Major League Baseball's dog days, the WNBA and Mel Kiper.
Summer is when fans want to be outside, when the kids are out of school, when a Saturday afternoon or Wednesday evening at an MLS stadium seems like a nice idea. MLS can claim a larger percentage of fans' entertainment dollars and newspapers' column inches in July. Why give that up?
It's also important to note that significant driver of the Russian decision is its performance in the UEFA Champions League. Currently, the Russian qualifiers have to wait nine months and two full transfer windows before beginning the competition, meaning that their rosters may be significantly different. They haven't done well -- when CSKA Moscow qualified for last year's Champions League quarterfinals, it marked the first time a Russian club had advanced that far in 14 years.
American clubs don't have nearly as much money or prestige riding on their CONCACAF Champions League results. There is a similar lag between the MLS Cup Final and the August kickoff of our continental championship, but right now, there's little to gain from doing well other than bragging rights. Hopefully that changes, but until it does, the tournament's timing should not play a role in how we structure our domestic league. The Los Angeles Galaxy didn't leave millions on the table with their loss to Puerto Rico.
People who want MLS to move to a fall-spring schedule need to provide a better reason for the change than the fact that they wish MLS was the Premier League or La Liga. Dressing up in Daddy's clothes doesn't make you an adult. Our league is still growing, and like it or not, the U.S. competes in a part of the world that does not operate on that calendar. There is no line in which we need to fall.
Nearly every country in North, Central and South America runs a split season, with two separate championships in fall and spring. They have two offseasons each year. The only major country that does not is Brazil. Its league season begins in May and ends in December. And Brazilian soccer seems to be doing okay.