MLS’ schedule changed to allow international play, creating a longer offseason

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake midfielder Damir Kreilach (8) celebrates a goal as Real Salt Lake hosts the San Jose Earthquakes, MLS soccer at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday Sept. 11, 2019.

The Major League Soccer season is nigh. And if it’s felt like an elongated amount of time since you’ve seen your favorite team in action, you’re mostly right.

MLS tweaked its schedule before the start of last season in an effort to solve some problems it had with momentum, particularly in the playoffs. The league went to an all-knockout postseason format and moved up the end of the regular season by about a month to avoid the November FIFA break.

But the consequence of those changes meant the MLS offseason would get longer. In Real Salt Lake's case, for instance, the 2018 season ended on Nov. 11 in the Western Conference semifinals. The team had about three and a half months between then and the start of the 2019 season, which started March 2. That includes the six weeks of preseason.

On the flip side, 2019 ended on Oct. 23 for RSL, 19 days before the previous year. The 2020 season starts Feb. 29, meaning it will have been more than four months for RSL between games that matter.

On the surface, a couple extra weeks of time off doesn’t seem to make much of an impact. But RSL was a playoff team, which means their offseason was a bit shorter. The 10 teams that missed the postseason had a break of nearly five full months.

Commissioner Don Garber told website SBI Soccer in December that the league needs to figure out what to do about the current length of the offseason. He said some ideas are already floating around.

“We’ve got to find out a way that our players can be participating in the offseason and doing all the things that they need to do to stay fit and in shape so that we could have a competitive environment,” Garber said. “There are other competitions that we’re contemplating and trying to work out. Are there things that we could do with those teams that don’t make the playoffs? There’s just so many different aspects to the schedule that are very complicated.”

It’s important to note that teams and players don’t spend the entire offseason sitting around or on vacation or eating whatever they want. RSL players get about a month off before starting individual workouts and training. Preseason starts about six weeks before the opener.

But after their break, some players are antsy to get back to business.

“I think you get really anxious,” RSL midfielder Justin Portillo said. “Obviously it is a long season. It’s a lot of games in a short amount of time. … So I think you definitely want a good month, month and a half of kind of recovery, vacation, that type of stuff. And I think once the holidays are over, I think that’s when it kind of hits you that I think everyone’s kind of ready to get back out there.”

MLS plays 34 games in its regular season, which is comparable to some of the top soccer leagues in the world. Liga MX and Bundesliga play 34, while the English Premier League, La Liga and Serie A all play 38.

Some soccer leagues overseas split up their seasons into de facto halves. Bundesliga and Ligue 1, for example, have breaks from Christmastime to about mid-January.

Albert Rusnák is most accustomed to a season that includes short breaks in the summer and the winter, a setup he thinks is most ideal. And while he understands the reasoning behind the long break after the MLS season, Rusnák is still irked about it — even in 2019 when the RSL’s offseason was shorter due to its playoff run.

“I personally think it’s way too long,” Rusnák said. “I know it’s the way that they’ve always done it here in the MLS. I even thought last year’s offseason was too long.”

Coach Freddy Juarez said it’s ideal to get his players back two weeks before they’re currently scheduled to return. But there’s an upside to the length of the offseason: Players come back with more hunger and passion to play, which could drive them the entire season.

Forward Corey Baird agreed.

“It’s interesting because obviously it’s nice to have time off, get away for a little bit, get your head straight,” Baird said. “But I think it also helps us where when we come back, everyone’s like, ‘Maybe that was a week or two too long.’ You kind of want to get back. You’re itching to get back. So I think it gets everyone at high spirits coming back."


NBA: April 10., 2019 — Oct. 22, 2019

NFL: Dec. 29, 2019 — Sept. 10, 2020

MLB: Sept. 29, 2019 — March 26, 2020

NHL: April 6, 2019 — Oct. 2, 2019

MLS: Oct. 6, 2019 — Feb. 29, 2020

Dates are end of previous regular season to current or upcoming regular season