Friday, May 27, 2005
Yeah, they're still playing
With the thoroughly amazing Champions League finale in Istanbul effectively bringing to a close the European club season, many people believe now is the time when everyone recharges their batters, goes on holiday to the Riviera (and not the one in Louisiana) and we pick up soccer when it starts to matter again in the fall.

Not true. And, with apologies to baseball marketing folk, that's why I love this game.

Did you know that during the time Major League Baseball is in its offseason, there are entire leagues running in Dominican countries and Japan? Mexico has an entire winter league! But those teams aren't made up of permanent players, just whoever they can get to play for them during the winter. Sometimes there are even American MLB players who join the team. But it's only to keep fit.

In soccer, the world plays on one of three different schedules. Most of Europe plays August - May, the US and other countries play April - November (which, really isn't that great here -- soccer is better in cold weather) while Mexico and Central American countries play a fall season and a spring season (termed the Apertura and Clausura Tournament). If we add in international matches (including Saturday's friendly between the U.S. and England in Chicago) and World Cup Qualifying ... well, soccer is year-round somewhere.

And this is what makes soccer great right now. Just as the Euro leagues wind down, Major League Soccer is just getting underway while World Cup Qualifying is in full swing in advance of next summer's big event.

American football is in the midst of an almost seven month offseason, baseball takes up to five months off (and they're still trying to get a World Cup-style event off the ground) and hockey is on permanent vacation. Basketball seems to go on forever but, really, if it's the same teams playing each other all the time, what's the point?

It's an exciting time for soccer in the U.S. There's always been the "we're only 5-10 years away" refrain from soccer die-hards but in this case it might actually be true. MLS is expanding by two in 2007 (and most likely by two more in 2009) which would bring the league to 16 teams. FIFA (international governing body of soccer) would like to cap top leagues at 18 (though we may go to 20). We're not going to have promotion and relegation in 10 years (which, really, is the most American idea in all of sports) but the games will be more exciting, in appropriate venues, and we won't be talking about whether or not the league can surive.

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