The relationship between MLS schedule and international competition has always been complicated
Other than an exhibition against German club Eintracht Frankfurt, Columbus Crew SC has not played a match since July 4, more than two weeks ago. The team will finally resume MLS play at home Saturday, July 22 against Philadelphia.
Why the 18-day break? MLS more or less shut down in early-to-mid July in deference to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, an international tournament hosted by the United States every other summer.
CONCACAF — the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football — is the governing body for international soccer in this part of the world. The U.S. faces other nations from CONCACAF in World Cup qualifying, and club teams from the region face off in the CONCACAF Champions League. (Crew SC competed in the Champions League after winning MLS Cup 2008.)
As for the Gold Cup, it's this region's equivalent to the European Championships hosted by UEFA, Europe's equivalent organization — a battle for regional dominance. Because the Gold Cup has no bearing on World Cup qualification, U.S. Coach Bruce Arena has largely been using it to audition less-seasoned players who might work their way into more high-stakes national team duty later on.
That has involved pulling a lot of players from MLS, though none from Crew SC. (It's crazy that Wil Trapp, one of the most accurate passers in the league, is not getting these looks, but that's a story for a different column.) Although the MLS-heavy roster is essentially a B or C squad for the U.S., it managed to win its group and advance to the quarterfinals. This week Arena swapped out a handful of these players for more experienced stars, also from MLS. Should the U.S. continue on to the semis, many MLS clubs will be without top players when league play resumes this weekend.
These kinds of scheduling conflicts have always existed for MLS. Most domestic leagues around the world compete on an August-to-May calendar, leaving summer open for international competition, but MLS plays March-to-December to avoid winter conditions and fighting for attention with more established American athletic leagues. As a result, it often ends up conflicting with higher-level events in the same sport — even, shamefully, the World Cup.
Although the league has worked to schedule around international competition, it can't afford to stay dormant for a whole month in the middle of the season. Thus, the awkward balance continues.