MLS: Marc Dos Santos fined for criticism, but is he wrong?

MLS, Vancouver Whitecaps, Marc dos Santos (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MLS, Vancouver Whitecaps, Marc dos Santos (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Last week, MLS handed down a fine to Vancouver head coach Marc Dos Santos for criticisms he made about the league’s offseason. But is he in the wrong?

Major League Soccer issued fines last week to Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore for his criticism of the refereeing in this year’s MLS Cup final and to Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos for his criticism of the league’s lengthened offseason. Dos Santos’ comments were not particularly harsh, but he was fined regardless. The Vancouver manager, in an interview with The Athletic, called the lengthy offseason ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘amateur’.

As with most league news, Dos Santos’ comments prompted discussion among the MLS Multiplex writers (both current and former). For some writers, the criticism was considered fair. For others, the term ‘amateur’ was too harsh. Some writers fell in the middle of either side, agreeing with various points from both views on the topic. Others still felt that dos Santos’ criticism was valid.

While Dos Santos may have used some strong words when describing the length of the offseason, it does bring up a larger talking point. Is MLS taking the steps necessary to become a top league? It is a stated goal of commissioner Don Garber for MLS to become one of the best leagues in the world, but the league’s moves don’t always reflect that goal.

A longer offseason

Before 2019, the MLS offseason (distance between MLS Cup and Opening Day) was just 82 days. The league made a conscious decision to lengthen the offseason, increasing the time between MLS Cup and Opening Day because of an alteration to the MLS Cup Playoffs. In recent years, the league utilized a mix of knockout matches and two-legged ties. This year, they opted for straight, single-leg knockout matches throughout the postseason. The alteration to the playoff format allowed the league to avoid the pesky November international break but increased the offseason time significantly.

The official span of time without playing for all teams between 2019 MLS Cup and 2020 Opening Day is 111 days. The offseason span for teams whose last game was on Decision Day is 145 days. For comparison, the span of time between the English Premier League’s final day of their 2018-19 season and opening day of the 2019-20 season was just 90 days.

One writer mentioned that the league only increased the offseason by one month. However, the distance between 90 days of offseason and 145 days is stark for most players. Because most leagues play nearly year-round, players keep their bodies at peak fitness for an extended period of time. Too much time away from regular playing time that can throw a player’s fitness routine completely off. It may even take more time to regain fitness from a longer offseason.

Why would the league keep almost half of its teams from playing for nearly five months? Every league around the world has one regular season, meaning all teams start and end at the same time. In MLS, there is a regular season, in which the entire league participates, then a playoff tournament, in which a remaining half continue on for varying lengths of time. It is a competitive disadvantage for half the league to have 145 days off and hinders the league’s growth as a whole. Is this a major problem? That is debatable, but Dos Santos might have a case for grievance here.

Midweek matches and the longterm

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To keep the offseason at a respectable length, some expected the opening day to be pushed forward. But the 2020 season will commence on the same weekend as the 2019 and 2018 seasons, and the compressed 2019 schedule did indeed create a few issues, the greatest of which was an increase in midweek matches.

Every league in the world plays varying amounts of midweek matches. The amount of those matches is a result of multiple factors, including the total number of games in a season and number of teams in the league. During the 2018-19 Premier League season, the league scheduled six league-wide midweek dates. For comparison, Atlanta United played eight midweek matches in 2019 and just five midweek matches in 2018. The EPL plays four more games than MLS in a season, yet MLS teams have more midweek matches because of the compressed schedule.

To make matters worse, there is less roster flexibility in MLS. For example, there are 25 roster slots for an EPL club, but each club can supplement their roster with an unlimited amount of U21 players. MLS rosters are restricted to just 30 slots in total. If an EPL club is trying to balance midweek matches and additional cup competitions, they can use those U21 players to rotate their squads. MLS clubs do not have this option, adding to the exhaustion the players already face from a compressed schedule. They also do not have restrictions on spending and roster designations.

Atlanta United, Toronto FC, Jozy Altidore
TORONTO, ON – OCTOBER 06: Jozy Altidore (17) of Toronto FC screams in pain after being injured during the second half of the MLS regular season match between Toronto FC and Columbus Crew on October 6, 2019, at BMO Field in Toronto, ON, Canada. (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Another MLS Multiplex writer mentioned the short offseason and its effects on Toronto and Seattle after their back-to-back MLS Cups. Both teams battled plenty of injuries with their squads, especially Toronto following their treble-winning 2017 season. If the league’s roster rules weren’t so strict, Toronto likely could have avoided some of those injuries. A lengthened offseason surely would have helped, but it was only needed because of the roster restrictions in the first place.

MLS succeeded in avoiding the November international break. However, by not pushing Opening Day forward by at least two weeks, officials are hindering the long-term progress of the league. More midweek matches enact a larger toll on players’ bodies, leading to more injuries. Plus, with more matches in a smaller amount of time, the quality of each individual match is likely to decrease. If the quality of matches is lower and players are injured more often, people will be less inclined to watch the product, which is the ultimate aim of MLS.

Schedule fix is possible

One writer mentioned that these roster rules and scheduling format were put into place in the early 2000s to help the league grow. While those formats and restrictions certainly helped the league in the beginning, after almost 20 years of expansion and development, things are now very different. Dos Santos, it seems, is merely pointing out the lengthened offseason as a step back by a league so intent on growing.

Another writer said that the league can’t move up the dates because February is too brutal for most of the country. While that is true, the league is rapidly expanding, and as they expand, they move into more southern climates, such as Miami and Nashville and Austin. With so many teams in the league, it is possible to schedule February matches for southern cities, avoiding the cold temperatures that plague most of the United States.

There is another added benefit to starting the season in February as well: MLS teams participating in the CONCACAF Champions League can prepare sooner and regain fitness faster. Their lack of fitness has been seen as a disadvantage against Liga MX teams that are already in the swing of things in their domestic season.

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The league’s decision to compress the season made sense at first. The 2018-19 offseason couldn’t be shortened but MLS Cup needed to happen a month earlier. With the MLS Cup shift completed, the longer offseason doesn’t make sense anymore. If the league wants to continue to grow in a healthy and make its mark as a top league, the offseason should be the same length as most leagues around the world. That was Marc Dos Santos’s point the whole time, despite the way he said it.

Input from former MLS Multiplex writers Nathan Reynolds, Matthew Nelson, and Gareth Wolff was used for this story.