Dig down into the slowly-churning discontent many American football lovers feel with MLS and you'll hear a lot of league-machination buzzwords: ‘Franchises aren't clubs.' ‘No pyramid.' ‘Promotion/relegation.' ‘Closed system.' Virtually every complaint has the same genesis: Where's the competitiveness? Everyone from Jurgen Klinsmann to elite youth-team coaches decries the lack of desperation and incentive built into the structure of MLS.
Usually we talk about this deficit in terms of the urgency displayed on the field, often after watching two lower-table teams blatantly satisfied with a late-season draw. But there are times when the uncompetitive nature of MLS show in a less subjective setting. We saw a perfect example of this in March, when our Chicago Fire agreed to move a match against New England from April 15 to this weekend, June 13.
The horrible nature of the schedule-change didn't wholly register at the time of announcement. That day, March 26, was in the middle of one of FIFA's mandated international dates - during those dates, clubs must release any healthy players called up for international duty without repercussion. The US was playing in Europe. Shaun Maloney was in Northern Ireland with Scotland; David Accam was with Ghana. It didn't seem that weird to agree to the move.
Here's where it gets weird, though. The original date for the match was not on a FIFA international date at all - April 15 was the date for USA v Mexico Presented by AT&T*, a match shoehorned into the schedule as a quick cash infusion before the summer's Gold Cup. There is no expectation that a club need release its players for such a game - but New England knew they'd be asked to, so they made puppy-dog eyes and asked the Fire if they couldn't play it just a little later, pweeeeease.
So far, so normal. Everything described lies within the normal tumult of professional football; everything's negotiable. The Revolution feature three players (Jermaine Jones, Lee Nguyen and Juan Agudelo) who figure to be better-than-average bets for any USA roster, especially one composed largely of men playing in North America. They realized there was a good chance they'd be wildly under-strength, and asked for an adjustment.
It all gets weird, though, as soon as the Fire say, "Yeah, sure." New England asking is understandable, but Chicago agreeing should provoke either cries of outrage or snickers of disbelief, for several reasons:
- The Fire would have had a full roster for the April 15 date, but June 13? Not so much. Remember those FIFA international dates? The next one after March is right now, June 8-16. The Fire will play without Maloney, Accam and Joevin Jones this weekend.
- If the game had been played April 15, it would've been the Wednesday meat of a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday sandwich for the Revolution. Agudelo and Nguyen were with the USA, and Jones had played only 45 gimpy minutes in returning from a knee problem. Saturday, should Jones' twitchy groin come around, only Agudelo will be missing for New England.
- It jeopardizes the Fire's participation in the US Open Cup. The fourth round of the USOC - a/k/a ‘the round when MLS teams join the tourney' - has been scheduled for June 16 for months. Moving a difficult conference road game to kick off less than 72 hours before the Open Cup game is either negligence, or a deliberate slap in the face of the Fire's proud Open Cup tradition.
All of which leads us back to the beginning. Why would the Fire do such a thing? Were the Men in Red given any consideration for making this sacrifice? If not, why would they do this?
We are left with an unsatisfying set of possible answers: 1.) The decision-makers are incompetent, or 2.) there is some kind of backroom arrangement taking place, fueling paranoia about corruption at the league level, or 3.) the decision-makers simply don't care about either league position or the Fire's tradition of taking the Open Cup seriously.
* No, I'm not making that up. That's the official name of the match, as listed on ussoccer.com. Yeah. Really.