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The era of constant games in soccer is here

You can look at it many ways, but it’s a huge concern overall.

Los Angeles FC defeats FC Dallas 2-0 during Major League Soccer match at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

In January 2015, the newest MLS superstar, Kaká, held his first media availability with American soccer press, and among the topics he covered ahead of his debut season with Orlando City SC, was the true insanity of the Brazilian soccer calendar.

“Unfortunately, in Brazil, we have a big problem with the calendar, with the clubs about salaries. Here [in MLS], we are more organized in this moment, [with] a big possibility to grow faster than Brazil,” Kaká said in that availability. “Brazil, in this moment we have to change a lot of things, and that’s not easy, because it’s so many times doing the wrong things, and now I think it’s the moment a lot of people that love football in Brazil need to think [about how] to change the soccer there.”

Teams can easily play 60 games in Brazil. Heck, they can play over 75 in a season across all competitions, on a calendar that typically only gives players 2-3 weeks off in total. That’s an average of a game every four days or so, for an entire year.

Those conditions aren’t totally unique to Brazil, with Argentina pushing limits as well and European clubs also piling more and more competitions and games on players.

Not to be outdone, instead of Brazil learning from the rest of the world, it appears the rest of the world is getting closer to following its lead, with the introduction of plans for a a vastly expanded Leagues Cup between all of MLS and Liga MX starting in 2023, plus an expanded Concacaf Champions League starting in 2024.

On one hand, this sounds great to anyone who wants to see more competitions, more cool matchups across borders, more chances for your team to win trophies. Admittedly, that part is cool.

But the Leagues Cup schedule will feature a monthlong pause in the summer in MLS, so teams can concentrate fully on this tournament. There’s supposed to be a group stage then knockouts, so some teams will play two or three games and then get a couple weeks off, while others will be in contention for most or all of the month, but will just play more and more games.

The knock-on effect is that the MLS calendar will either expand or get compressed, or both. It’s possible the league could cut down the schedule to fewer than 34 games in the regular season, but hahahaha yeah right I’m not counting on that.

While the league has already started moving the season to begin earlier to cut down on the length of the offseason and also to help teams in the CCL be more competitive in the spring, the calendar will either need to be stretched to encompass more of the calendar year (this year, the season started in mid-April, but that was mostly due to the pandemic and CBA negotiations. MLS Cup will take place in December, and I would expect seasons to begin at the end of February moving forward), or teams will just need to play twice a week as a matter of course, most of the time.

Remember, it’s not just the league games that need to be accounted for here: a winning MLS team in the U.S. Open Cup will play somewhere around five games in that tournament, plus with CCL expanding, teams will either play up to five or up to 10 games in that if they reach the final, depending on if they do single-leg or home-and-away format for each round. Add up to four games for the MLS Cup Playoffs (obviously the format there changes pretty often, so the number of games can vary dramatically year to year), and we’re at 48-53 games without including Leagues Cup. With it, let’s say the number of games goes to 55-60 in a year. Don’t forget one-offs like Campeones Cup, which technically comes with a trophy! Not quite Brazilian insanity, but edging closer!

Obviously most teams will not play the upper limit of games every year, and even the best teams will get knocked out of some competitions early. But this should still ring some alarm bells for you.

Why is it a big deal? Let me count the ways:

  • Will there be any sizable expansion of rosters? We’ve seen over the past two years in particular the ways in which compressed schedules in MLS require more active players on rosters to fill holes. Even in an era where teams can make five substitutes in a game, teams routinely struggle to have a full bench in some games.
  • Why do you need to fill holes with more players? In part, more games in a shorter amount of time leads to more injuries. So the actual quality on the field drops precipitously if enough top players get hurt.
  • This doesn’t even factor in the additional burden of internationals. Don’t be shocked if the newly compressed international windows that cram more games in for World Cup qualifying soon become the norm. And as a result, both the international players themselves have to play even more games (risking injury, fatigue and general burnout) but the MLS club teams often have to keep playing while they’re gone, which means they need more players.
  • For MLS teams in particular, they’re setting themselves up to face Liga MX opposition more often, which is in part a way to make Liga MX teams less scary. But assuming MLS teams are going to comply with the measured salary budget increases over the life of the current CBA, which runs through 2026, will they be able to compete generally with more free-spending Liga MX teams in both Leagues Cup and CCL? In other words, if we do all this only for Liga MX to have three or four semifinalists each year in each competition, what’s the point? We can all see with our eyes that more money, used wisely, will help MLS narrow the gulf, faster, with Liga MX in general.
  • How much are fans going to go for additional competitions? Yes, the most hardcore fans will hang on every single game, will live and die with every competition along the way. But fans already mostly don’t care about the Open Cup, a short competition with a ton of history, so how can you possibly get more casual folks (or, let’s face it, fans with busy lives in general) engaged in more and more soccer games?
  • Um, what about the women here? In isolation, I don’t think Concacaf’s expanded Champions League format is bad at all, but why don’t we put some of the ample time spent coming up with men’s CCL formats, scrapping them, and coming up with newer ones, and focus on getting to a spot where women’s club teams can play in regional competition at all?

You may be saying right now, “Gosh Alicia, maybe it is you who is burned out, perhaps you should just chill and let the games come.” I have to admit that when we were in the thick of the regular season in the fall of 2020, with double-game weeks all the time, the players and coaches looking visibly exhausted and at times unable to remember two games back, I realized this quest to pile fixtures upon more fixtures profoundly puts the sport in jeopardy, frankly. It sounds alarmist but it’s not.

The global trend to just add more games is very concerning, and in that regard, Concacaf, MLS and Liga MX are just following the rest of the world. But for the health and safety of players and the health of the sport overall, we need to seriously consider if more games is always the answer. To my mind, it isn’t.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.