Could Lionel Messi change how MLS schedules for international breaks?

Major League Soccer’s decision to play its regular-season schedule through FIFA’s breaks for international competitions has been a topic of conversation and contention for the league since its beginning in 1996.

New Inter Miami coach Tata Martino told reporters recently the league is seeking to avoid such scheduling starting next year.

“It is probable it will happen,” he said.

In 2023, FIFA has had two-game breaks scheduled in March, June, September, October and November, as well as the CONCACAF Gold Cup in June and July won by Mexico.

The issue has not been resolved all these many years as MLS tries to fit its 34-game schedule around U.S. Open Cup games, CONCACAF competitions and new this summer, the successful Leagues Cup that shut down the schedule for five weeks.

Leagues in Europe and elsewhere shut down during international windows and play more midweek games.

But MLS team owners are reluctant to give up bigger weekend box-office dates to play more weeknights. They’ve also resisted switching to a fall-to-spring schedule, as Europe uses, because of cold winter weather in U.S. northern cities and competition from the NFL season, college football and other American sports.

MLS has extended its schedule at both ends, creeping into a February start and lasting until December’s MLS Cup this year. But it still can’t fit everything without scheduling games during FIFA breaks.

Missing Messi

Maybe next year really will be different for one reason and one name: Lionel Messi.

The Argentine superstar has taken Inter Miami from last place in MLS regular season in June to a nine-game winning streak, a trophy won in Leagues Cup and a spot in the U.S. Open Cup final.

Messi is having to miss at least three of his team’s remaining 10 games to play for his country in two FIFA breaks, the first that ends Tuesday and another before the MLS regular season’s final week in October.

“For some that might be your only chance to see Messi come to your stadium,” said Minnesota United FC coach Adrian Heath, one of the opinionated voices on this issue. “I just think we need to look at the big picture.”

Heath said Martino’s words go further than his when he says something must be done.

“The fact that he’s Inter Miami with the players he has probably will carry a bit more weight,” Heath said. “He said you can’t expect the league to keep getting better if three times a season you lose your best players. It’s not logical.”

Heath notes MLS’ growth and improvement in recent years. The league continues to acquire young, talented international players from Argentina and elsewhere. The better the players, the more likely they’re called to their national teams — and with a team’s best players missing, the more the competitive balance in games is affected.

Players called to international duty travel great distances in a matter of days, and back again usually after playing at least twice.

The situation can prove difficult physically and emotionally, too, for players who want to play for both club and country.

“You don’t ever want players to choose between their club and their country because that just creates resentment,” said U.S. National Men’s team starting goalkeeper Matt Turner, who moved from MLS’ New England to England’s Premier League last year. “You want a mutually beneficial relationship. Hopefully, MLS will find a way to make the schedule fit so guys don’t have to make those decisions.”

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