Let me say off the top I’m a huge respecter of the USL Championship and the following is not meant to be any disrespect to that league. But with Sacramento Republic set to join MLS in 2022, I’ve had a thought percolating in my head for a few days.
What if MLS invited six guest teams to their restart tournament in Orlando?
There’s a massive complication with their bubble tournament to restart the MLS season, which is 26 teams don’t easily fit into a standard tournament. 26 doesn’t divide into four or three easily, so the standard group size for short tournaments in a central location can’t be used.
Instead, I don’t know if you’ve seen, but for the tournament MLS is running with six groups, five of them with four teams, and one with six teams. It’s kind of messy.
It’s not MLS’s fault they don’t have the right number of teams to divide easily for a central tournament — there’s no way they could have expected the coronavirus pandemic would happen, the league would shut down for four months, and then restart with a World Cup-style tournament.
But again, what if they had invited six teams to play so that it would make a logical field of 32 teams? I’m going to think through this:
MLS has expansion teams on tap for Sacramento (of course), Austin, Charlotte and St. Louis. In the case of Republic, they are the club going to MLS, so they would easily slot into one of the six open spots for this hypothetical scenario. The other three cities have USL Championship teams, but Charlotte and Austin’s are distinct from the MLS groups coming soon.
Alright, one scenario would be to bring in all four, to help drum up anticipation for MLS in all of those markets, everyone gets along and is happy about this arrangement.
That would still leave two teams. To keep it within the geographical bounds of the current league, and bring in two Canadian Premier League teams, such as reigning champion Forge FC and runner-up Cavalry FC.
Alternately, since this is all hypothetical, we could guess Sacramento would agree to the plan, and maybe Saint Louis FC as well. With four slots, you could get really creative. Ligue 1 cancelled their season — maybe bring in a couple clubs? I’d bet MLS would steer away from Paris Saint-Germain because they wouldn’t want them to crush MLS collectively, but maybe the third- and fourth-placed teams, Rennes and Lille? Those aren’t big teams globally but it could draw some French attention to this MLS tournament.
Liga MX is tentatively tabbed to begin during the MLS restart tournament, so they’re out. What about Argentina? I’m not aware of plans to get that league going next month, so why not? Boca Juniors and River Plate finished first and second in the abandoned season, but again, they may be too tough for MLS, or maybe not? South American clubs are always a gamble. Let’s go with third-placed Velez Sarsfield and fourth-placed Racing, that can pull in eyeballs from Argentina and give MLS a chance to scout future MLS players in MLS, no less.
With six groups of four teams, each of the guest teams could go into each group, making that part of the equation straightforward. Yes, there would be a range between the teams depending on if you kept it all U.S./Canada or went international, but them’s the breaks, I guess.
Doesn’t this sound like a ton of fun?!?!?! Yes, it does. This sounds awesome because it would be a step up from the Teams of the World championship or whatever they call the international friendlies that come to the U.S. every summer, as something with a competitive element. Normally teams are tied up in their own competitions, but here’s a rare free pass, might as well do something cool with it.
But, yes, time to discuss the drawbacks or mitigating factors to this fantasy of very cool:
Guest teams didn’t plan for this
From a Sac Republic perspective, they don’t have an MLS roster and didn’t plan for one. They don’t have an MLS salary budget to work with. They would be big underdogs.
That’s absolutely true, and it would probably be tough sledding. To counter that, I would just say this would be a freebie, for all the guest teams. You can try stuff! Play all left-footed players, bring an academy team, bring your best team, try to go toe-to-toe, whatever it is, if it’s legal in the sport, why not? It’s only a month of play, only three games if you don’t advance to the knockouts. And for Sacramento, making the knockouts would be good, especially in a 32-team field and especially with the current roster.
But yes, this would be a roadblock.
USL teams have their own competition to worry about
I doubt in all reality USL Championship teams would skip their own league for a month to play temporarily in MLS. Even if they agreed and got sign-off from USL, which is planning to restart their season in teams’ home markets just a few days after MLS kicks off their tournament, they would have to make up at least a few games down the road in addition to playing some extra games. Plus, they most likely wouldn’t get approval. Maybe if USL had abandoned the 2020 season, the path would be set, but this could be too much.
FIFA might not allow this
Good ole FIFA might nix an improvised tournament across countries, out of hand. If it was the USL/CPL version, FIFA probably wouldn’t give a damn, however.
Reservations for MLS, players
There’s two main problems with this from an MLS perspective. First, the group stage games are meant to count in the 2020 MLS regular season standings, and while teams could just not count the guest team results in that, surely some would cry foul at the prospect of only some results counting. MLS teams could play scrubs against top teams, or play weakened teams against “weaker” opposition, and that could throw the tournament out of whack, I suppose.
Second, the players may not want to play guest teams. Negotiations were already contentious to have this return tournament in the first place, imagine if MLS dropped an 11th hour “By the way, we’re inviting six teams outside MLS to play in this tournament, hope that’s cool!” That might have been the last straw, I don’t know.
To be honest, these particular obstacles don’t seem impossible to overcome, but you know there would be some “Sanctity of MLS!” shouters, plus what if a guest team won the MLS tournament? The Copa Libertadores and Copa America continually invite outside teams but they’ve never had a crisis of one of those teams winning. An outside team winning would probably not be great as a selling point for MLS.
OK, so that was fun to think about. What do you think? Would you have liked to have seen Sac Republic playing in Orlando with MLS, or should we keep our feet planted in the real world? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.