MLS looks to conform international schedule
Major League Soccer is looking at changing its schedule to conform to FIFA's international calendar, which could mean Canadian and other teams playing in winter.
Commissioner Don Garber, while stressing the league is just looking at the viability of such a radical shift at this point, said the season would start and end later under such a plan.
"Think of it conceivably as starting at the end of the summer and ending sometime in the early part of winter," he told a news conference at BMO Field prior to Sunday night's MLS Cup game.
"Taking a break — we're thinking about how long that break could be — and then starting up again February-ish and then ending in late spring."
"It would be no dissimilar to what the rest of the world does," he added. "We've got to figure whether we could manage it and when we could manage it."
The league schedule currently runs March through November, including playoffs.
FIFA has a series of dates blocked off on its calendar to free up players in major leagues for international duties, from tournaments to individual games.
MLS does not conform to the schedule, which complicates releasing players to their international teams.
"It's less about being like the rest of the world. I don't think we need to do it for that reason," Garber said. "It's to try to have the best players on the field during our league competition."
He called the MLS Cup game in Toronto "a pretty good test" in that the date would represent a regular season game under such a calendar.
The change would require hardy fans and players. A biting wind Sunday night made game-time temperatures of five or six degrees feel far colder.
Garber noted that fans and teams in Calgary braved snow for a CFL game Sunday, wondering "why wouldn't they go to a soccer game if it's in that weather?"
The question, he said, was growing team fanbases "so they believe enough in their clubs and they're willing to come out [through] thick and thin to support their teams."
But he also added: "I don't think we'll ever be playing games in January or February."
He played down immediate expectations, saying it would take "a long time even after we decided to execute on a plan like that.
"The bottom line is we're telling the world we're going to begin taking a very serious look at this whole issue and what kind of things we needed to do to determine if it makes sense to us."
Garber also announced that the league playoffs will grow from the current eight teams to 10 teams, when Vancouver and Portland join to raise the number of overall franchises to 18.
The league had not finalized the new playoff system other than the fourth- and fifth-placed teams in each conference will meet to decide who joins a field of eight.
There could be some crossover from one conference to another.
The commissioner also announced the 2011 season will kick off in the third week of March, slightly earlier than usual. It will be a balanced schedule, but he said that probably won't be possible in 2012, when the addition of Montreal will bring the number of teams to 19.