FIFA's intercontinental playoff dates could be a challenge for MLS' playoffs
A tricky scheduling issue could potentially put several clubs and players in a bind during the upcoming MLS Cup playoffs.
As things currently stand, the league has scheduled the second leg of all four of its conference semifinals for Sunday, Nov. 5. The November FIFA window will open the following morning, at which point clubs must release all players who received a call-up to their national teams.
Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t be an issue. MLS is taking a break during the playoffs to accommodate the FIFA window, with the conference finals not set to begin until Nov. 21, a full week after the international window closes.
The November window isn’t exactly normal, however. That’s when FIFA will stage the two sets of intercontinental playoffs that will determine the final berths in next summer’s World Cup. The fourth-place finisher in CONCACAF will take on the winner of the series between Australia and Syria for a spot in Russia, while the fifth-place finisher in CONMEBOL will meet New Zealand in a separate two-game playoff.
It’s almost certain that multiple MLS playoff teams will have key players called up for the two-legged World Cup qualification playoffs.
The exact dates of the intercontinental playoff matches won't be announced until after the current FIFA window closes next week, but, according to FIFA rules, they must be played between Nov. 6 and Nov. 14. Considering the huge distances that will have to be traveled between the first and second legs of both series, it’s a safe bet they’ll be spaced as far apart as possible. In the 2014 World Cup qualification cycle, Mexico and New Zealand and Uruguay and Jordan contested the two legs of their series’ a full week apart on Nov. 13 and Nov. 20.
That could create issues for MLS players. Say the intercontinental playoffs are scheduled for Nov. 8 and Nov. 14. If that’s the case, participating national teams would likely want players in camp well before Nov. 5. Playing in the second leg of the conference semifinals would make it difficult for them to compete in the first leg of the World Cup qualifying playoff. There would scarcely be time to recover before the first CONCACAF-AFC qualifier, which will be hosted by the CONCACAF representative. There would barely even be time to get to New Zealand for the first leg of the OFC-CONMEBOL series.
It’d also force the affected players into a nightmare decision: Bail on your club team before the second leg of a playoff series, or stay, play and miss a chance to help your country -- some of which, like Panama, have never qualified for a World Cup.
A slew of clubs and players could be affected. There’s still plenty to be sorted out over the final two CONCACAF match days, but it’s a relatively safe bet that either the U.S., Panama or Honduras will finish fourth and be forced into the intercontinental playoff.
All three of those CONCACAF teams regularly name MLS players to their squads. Panama would likely call Seattle’s Roman Torres, Houston's Adolfo Machado, New York’s Michael Murillo and Fidel Escobar, San Jose’s Anibal Godoy and Toronto’s Armando Cooper. If Honduras claims the fourth spot, Houston could be dealt a hammer blow, as the Dynamo’s Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto and Boniek Garcia would be near guarantees to make its roster.
The U.S., of course, would draw the biggest MLS names. Toronto’s Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore would be surefire playoff call-ups, as would Seattle’s Clint Dempsey, Portland’s Darlington Nagbe, Atlanta’s Brad Guzan, Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler and Chicago’s Dax McCarty. All those players are on teams currently above the playoff line, while several other MLS players currently in camp with the U.S. are on teams battling for a playoff place.
In South America, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Ecuador and Chile are among the teams in contention to finish fifth. All five countries have called MLS players for qualifiers this year, with three of the five calling MLSers for the current round of qualifiers. Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron (Paraguay) and Carlos Carmona (Chile), Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro (Uruguay), Real Salt Lake’s Joao Plata (Ecuador) and Dallas’ Carlos Gruezo (Ecuador), Orlando's Yoshi Yotun (Peru) and Vancouver's Yordy Reyna (Peru) are the players on potential playoff teams who could be affected.
New Zealand is already in the playoff. It called five MLS players in for its friendly against Japan on Friday, though no one in that group plays significant minutes for a playoff contender.
Sources at several clubs who could be affected by the tight scheduling said that they’d hold players until the FIFA window opens on Nov. 6. Barring a change, that’d probably eliminate any CONMEBOL players from playing in the first leg of the playoff at New Zealand, though whichever South American country qualifies for the playoff will be a huge favorite against the Kiwis. The travel would be less of an issue for the first leg of the CONCACAF-AFC series, but heavy minutes logged in MLS days before the intercontinental opener could affect MLS players' availability for their national teams.
If FIFA schedules the intercontinental playoffs for later in the week of Nov. 6, this wouldn’t become much of an issue. If playoffs slated for Nov. 7 or Nov. 8, however, MLS teams and players will have to navigate a very tricky club-or-country situation.