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COMMENTARY

MLS makes a date with mediocrity

September 04, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

What do the national soccer teams of the U.S., Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago and Wales have in common this week?

Answer: Every one of them has a player from Toronto FC on its roster. Normally, that is the sort of recognition that Major League Soccer clubs crave. All the top clubs in the world consist almost entirely of national team players.

But because MLS has spent 13 years going its own way and scheduling league games when it knows they will conflict with international matches, and that the best players will therefore be unavailable, the fans are being robbed.

None more so than those in Toronto, which will play Chivas USA in Canada on Saturday without nine of its 11 starters, all of them representing their countries in World Cup qualifying matches on Saturday and next Wednesday.

Absent for Toronto will be Greg Sutton and Jim Brennan (Canada), Carlos Ruiz (Guatemala), Amado Guevara (Honduras), Tyrone Marshall (Jamaica), Jarrod Smith (New Zealand), Julius James (Trinidad and Tobago), Marvell Wynne (U.S.) and Carl Robinson (Wales).

Toronto is also missing two players to long-term injury and its 18-man senior roster has been cut to seven, leaving it to field youth and developmental players against Chivas. Toronto appealed to the league to reschedule Saturday's match but was turned down, a decision that left Toronto Coach John Carver fuming.

"I know the rules are there from the start of the season, but as you go along and new situations arise I think common sense should prevail," Carver said. "Now, we keep talking about wanting to improve this league and make this league better and attract better players. But if . . . I'm having to bring kids in off the street, then, if I'm a fan of Toronto FC, I'll feel as if I'm not getting value for money because I paid good money for my season ticket and yet we're not putting the product on the pitch."

Toronto is not the only club affected by the inability of MLS to get its schedule in tune with the international calendar. Chivas USA, for example, will be missing Sacha Kljestan (U.S.) and Shavar Thomas (Jamaica) on Saturday, just as the Galaxy will be missing David Beckham (England), Landon Donovan and Eddie Lewis (U.S.) and Ante Jazic (Canada) that night when it plays Real Salt Lake in Carson.

The only game that really matters to American soccer fans on Saturday is the U.S. playing its historic World Cup qualifying match against Cuba in Havana. Yet MLS has five games scheduled for Saturday, two of them conflicting directly with the Cuba showdown.

The league has never followed the rest of the world's lead and taken a break when international matches are scheduled. England's Premier League, for instance, will not play this weekend while Beckham and Co. are away playing World Cup qualifiers at Andorra and Croatia.

Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, said that the league has to find a solution to "the ongoing challenge of playing MLS games during the FIFA international fixture dates."

He said MLS is unable to fit its 30-game schedule into a March-November timetable without playing on international dates.

"Our options include reducing the number of tournaments in which our teams participate and/or starting the season in the beginning of March, when weather and low attendance create issues in many markets," he said.

The answer would seem to be simple. Limit MLS participation in all extraneous competitions to only the previous season's champion and runner-up, and make it optional.

The SuperLiga, the U.S. Open Cup, the CONCACAF Champions League, the Pan-Pacific Championship and all the rest only clutter up the MLS calendar with meaningless games that fans do not care about.

Reorganize the league without conferences. Have the 15 MLS teams play each other once at home and once on the road for a total of 28 games. The league has fallen into the same trap as the Galaxy -- trying to run before it can walk, trying to be global before it is even local.

All that fans want is a decent league with decent players. The rest is nothing but window dressing.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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