Soccer

MLS backtracks on plans of including winter games

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The Canadian Press
2/14/2011 3:25:15 PM
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VANCOUVER -- Major League Soccer seems to have backtracked on the idea of changing its schedule to conform to FIFA's international calendar, a move that could have resulted in Canadian and other teams playing in the winter.

Commissioner Don Garber thinks the current MLS schedule will need expanding as the league grows. But he doubts fan support has reached the level of the NFL or CFL where people will attend games in freezing temperatures or falling snow.

"I don't think we are going to a winter calendar any time soon," Garber told reporters Monday. "To think about playing in Toronto in January or December, it's hard to imagine we are going to be able to do that.

"The fact our league is only 16 years old we don't yet have that deep, deep commitment from fans to come through thick and thin. I'm not sure we are ready for that. But at some point I think we probably will be."

The current MLS season will run from March 15 to Oct. 23 with the playoffs to follow.

FIFA, the body that governs international soccer, has a series of dates blocked off on its calendar to free up players in major leagues for international duties. These range from tournaments to individual games.

With MLS following a different schedule, it complicates releasing players to their international teams.

"I'm not sure if we are ever going to get full alignment with FIFA's international calendar," said Garber. "That being said . . . there are not enough weeks in our current schedule to really have an ideal schedule. We are going to have to continue to look at expanding our season."

MLS first raised the possibility of changing its schedule at the same time the United States was bidding for the 2022 World Cup. FIFA

awarded that tournament to Qatar.

"We thought it would be smart to show the international football community that we were open to do some things that would more align with the international confines of the sport," Garber said. "That is probably less important for us now."

The Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers will both join MLS this season, increasing the league to 18 teams.

TSN announced on Monday it has reached a six-year deal to be the national broadcaster of MLS games.

The network will show 24 regular season games this season featuring Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. That will increase to 30 games when the Montreal Impact joins the league in 2012.

Garber welcomed TSN's involvement.

"It is Canada's broadcaster," he said. "One that is very respected, knows the game, knows sports.

"They were very excited about getting behind Major League Soccer and helping us grow the sport."

The deal also gives TSN the rights for the MLS Cup, the playoffs and the all-star game.

Garber said having both Vancouver and Montreal in MLS will help raise awareness of the league across Canada. He compared it to watching ripples spread after a stone is tossed into a lake.

"First we have to increase our relevance in our local markets," he said. "It's a lot harder to grow those circles around cities that are separated by three time zones.

"I don't know if that will happen in the net 12 to 18 months. But I believe we will be able to achieve that."

Montreal will play in the second-tier NASL this season, which will also feature a team from Edmonton.

Toronto FC has been one of MLS's success stories, with the team playing before soldout crowds. Last year there were signs of discontentment as fans became frustrated with the team missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

Garber said Toronto management leaned a lesson.

"They got a wake-up call," said Garber. "You can own a hockey team and not be successful and it more than likely won't affect your business.

"Soccer is different. The bloom is not off the rose. I think they will get it right."

Toronto will have a new coach and manager this year.

MLS is still trying to find its place in North America's professional sports market but the league sometimes makes amateur moves.

This year's full schedule was not released until last week, about a month before the regular season starts. The playoff format still hasn't been announced.

"We need to get things right and take the heat," said Garber. "We could have issued a schedule six weeks ago but we would be sitting here today changing that schedule when we finalized our TV deal.

"We chalk that up to growing pains and evolution. We know it's not going to be like this forever. It's part of developing a sport league. This is what the other leagues went through 50 years ago."

One of the goals of MLS is to grow soccer in North America. Garber said the league hasn't established the same relationship with the Canadian Soccer Association as it has with the U.S. Soccer Federation.

"I think we need to find a way to do that," he said. "If we do that, we will find a way to collectively grow the sport."

Garber said MLS is financially healthy.

"We have a handful of clubs that are profitable," he said. "Some of our teams are doing OK and some of our teams are losing money.

"Overall, the league is in good economic shape. Our investors are strong. They remain committed."

Garber wants to see a 20th team, probably in New York, added by the 2013 or 2014 season. He sees 22 teams by the end of the decade, but isn't in a hurry to expand.

He points to the NHL's problems in non-traditional hockey markets as something MLS wants to avoid.

"You guys have learned with your popular sport," Garber said. "Expansion isn't good at all costs.

"You have to be sure you are expanding properly and doing it with the right owners and the right markets, managing the player pool. We don't need to expand. We are only going to expand if it makes sense for the growth of all of our measures."

Vancouver Whitecaps Celebrate (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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