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Overworked stars, inconsequential matches highlight the absurdity of the MLS regular season

Aug 15, 2023; Chester, PA, USA; Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi (10) shoots the ball against Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake (18) in front of defender Jakob Glesnes (5) at Subaru Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi (10) shoots the ball against Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake (18) in front of defender Jakob Glesnes (5) at Subaru Park. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Inter Miami’s players — or at least the ones not felled by injury and fatigue — schlepped onto an airplane Tuesday for the 44th leg of a monthslong journey.

They dragged their weary bodies out to a tarmac, up a flight of airstairs. They flew three-plus hours to Chicago. They are “spent,” head coach Tata Martino has said, but there, on Wednesday, they’ll play their 16th of 17 games in 67 days, and their 34th in less than 22 weeks.

“It’s really crazy the number of games we’ve played,” Martino said Saturday.

And all around Major League Soccer, a growing chorus of players and coaches agree.

"It's ridiculous,” Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake told The Inquirer. “And players have to speak up."

Their concerns, of course, are not unique to MLS. Overworked stars and calendar congestion are global problems. The ruthless men who govern the sport keep adding more tournaments and games in an endless quest for more revenue. Players and coaches, male and female, European and otherwise, keep telling governing bodies to stop. “We are going to kill the players,” Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said — six years ago. He reiterated his critiques for the umpteenth time last week.

What is unique to MLS, though, is that a majority of its games are ultimately inconsequential.

It stuffs 34 regular-season rounds into less than eight months — and works around three other competitions — to eliminate only a whopping 11 of 29 teams. The other 18 make the playoffs, where one or two losses can override the February-to-October grind.

This, in a nutshell, is the absurdity of the MLS season. It overloads players. And it really doesn’t have to.

The public’s main culprit has been the Leagues Cup, a recently invented tournament plopped in between the second and third trimesters of the MLS regular season. It featured all 29 MLS teams, plus all 18 from Mexico’s Liga MX. It is largely responsible for the barrage of matches that Miami and others have endured ever since it began in July. And it was largely ridiculed when devised.

But at least its games felt meaningful. Thanks in part to Lionel Messi, it captivated fans and concluded with a spectacle. It was designed to capture new audiences, namely Mexican Americans, so it felt like a money-grab; but there’s nothing wrong with savvy business if it pleases customers and yields excitement.

The regular season, on the other hand, often feels dull and worthless. And there is no reason that it couldn’t be trimmed to 28 or 29 games.

The standard European league season is 34-38 games, but it lasts a month longer and doesn’t tack on playoffs. It doesn’t require frequent air travel. And it’s logical, because — unlike MLS — it’s balanced. In the English Premier League or the German Bundesliga, each team plays every other team once at home and once away. The team with the most points at the end of this double round-robin is the champion.

CHESTER, PA - AUGUST 03: Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake (18) leaps for a ball during the Leagues Cup game between D.C.United and the Philadelphia Union on August 3, 2023, at Subaru Park in Chester, NJ. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Andre Blake (18) leaps for a ball during the Leagues Cup game between D.C.United and the Philadelphia Union on August 3, 2023, at Subaru Park in Chester, NJ. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Those formats aren’t inherently better or worse than one that concludes with playoffs. In fact, their lack of playoffs often makes for anti-climactic title races. But it infuses every week with drama. The tiered stakes, with multiple cut lines — top four, top six, bottom three — make you watch Arsenal in August, and Brighton in December, and Bournemouth in May.

What, on the contrary, is the point of watching the Union in June, or Nashville SC in September?

The answer is home-field advantage, which isn’t irrelevant. Very few games are wholly meaningless.

But it’s hard to care about games in June when a bang-average team, on 1.5 points per game, can clinch a playoff spot with four matches to spare; and when the Chicago Fire, whose pitiful form would have them in a relegation fight elsewhere, are somehow still in playoff contention.

It’s even harder to argue that 34 matchdays are necessary to weed out unworthy teams — to determine that the Fire are bad and Philadelphia is pretty good.

And harder still to make that case when getting to 34 matches requires playing through international breaks, and on weekday nights, and on the same weekend as the Leagues Cup final.

The reason for all of it — for the bloated playoffs, for the overloaded schedules, for the roster restrictions that leave clubs “not equipped enough … for all these competitions,” as LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said — is money. Every match represents broadcast inventory and ticket sales. But each and every one of these choices sacrifices the long-term good of the league for a short-term boost to the owners’ bottom lines.

The players also benefit, eventually, by way of salaries, which are somewhat tied to revenue. But the growing consensus is that something must change.

“We’re the ones that are suffering, and the quality of the league is going to go down,” Blake told The Inquirer. “Are you going to allow us to have more depth? Or, if you ask players to play however many games, obviously there’s going to be injuries, and when injuries come, then teams don’t have their best players on the field.”

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