Major League Soccer’s contingent of World Cup-bound players will say goodbye to their teams following this weekend’s slate of matches, at least for the next month or so. MLS will play on, save for a nine-day hiatus around the start of the tournament. From the May 28 mandatory release date until the end of the group stage, MLS will still play 42 matches.
Schedule-wise, MLS is in a tough spot, of course. The season already lasts into December. There are summer friendlies, U.S. Open Cup matches and Canadian Championship matches to try to shoehorn in among the regular season schedule. Other international fixture dates will dot the calendar as well later in the year.
But make no mistake, the competitive integrity of the regular season will be affected due to the World Cup absences, and the impact will be uneven to say the least. Thanks in part to the failure of the U.S. men’s national team to qualify for the World Cup, 11 teams won’t be affected at all, though the trio of friendlies the U.S. will play in the next few weeks could make a difference.
For now, there are 12 other teams that aren’t so fortunate, and their depth will be tested to varying degrees. Foremost among the teams that will be affected is expansion side LAFC. Bob Bradley’s team is set to lose four players, and while Omar Gaber has been a bit-part performer so far, Belgium’s Laurent Ciman, Costa Rica’s Marco Urena and Mexico star Carlos Vela have been key contributors.
Vela in particular has been in scintillating form with seven goals and five assists. Ciman’s contribution in the back, not to mention his ability to score from set pieces, may be even tougher to replace.
Yet Bradley has been adding to his roster piece by piece. The acquisition of Lee Nguyen from the New England Revolution is timely and should soften the blow of losing Vela for an extended period. The same is true of forward Adama Diomande, who should eat up some of the minutes taken by Urena, although the Costa Rican has recently been sidelined by facial fractures.
At minimum, LAFC will be grateful for an impressive start to the season, one that has seen it accumulate 20 points in 11 games. If the loss of players like Vela and Ciman affects results, LAFC should still have enough of a cushion that it will still be in the playoff places when its players return.
The Seattle Sounders‘ situation is a bit different, and not just because they find themselves in the unusual position of being near the bottom of the standings. Panama defender Roman Torres and Uruguayan playmaker Nico Lodeiro have both been dealing with injuries. But the absence of Sweden’s Gustav Svensson is a big blow given how he’s played in both the back line and in midfield.
Orlando City figures to feel the pinch of losing two starters in midfielder Yoshi Yotun as well as defender Amro Tarek, while the Portland Timbers will be without the services of Daniel Guzman — who has missed time due to injury — as well as midfielder Andy Polo. New York City FC (Ronald Matarrita, Rodney Wallace), the New York Red Bulls (Michael Murillo, Fidel Escobar) and the San Jose Earthquakes (Anibal Godoy, Harold Cummings) will lose multiple players as well.
There are instances where a looming World Cup doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in players. The possibility of achieving a lifelong dream, as well as a strong desire to avoid injury, can do strange things to a player’s form and performances. And, as a result, their club might not necessarily be shedding any tears due to a departure.
The player with the most virulent strain of “World Cup-itis” just might be Minnesota United defender Francisco Calvo. The form of the Costa Rica international has been absolutely wretched for much of the season, leaving many to wonder what it will take for manager Adrian Heath to drop him from the lineup. San Jose’s Godoy has been slightly better, but has still drawn the ire of some segments of the Quakes faithful.
Then there are the Dos Santos brothers — Jonathan and Giovani — who haven’t exactly set the world on fire with their performances for the LA Galaxy, and both have been dealing with nagging injuries during the season. Given the glut of midfield options, the selection dilemma for manager Sigi Schmid might ease a bit if both players do indeed make Juan Carlos Osorio’s Mexico roster.
An oft-forgotten aspect of losing players to the World Cup is their state when they return. Some have difficult moments to overcome, like the Earthquakes’ Chris Wondolowski did following his miss against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup. Others pick up injuries. And then there can be an emotional letdown that can easily take place in the wake of reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
Such factors can bleed into performances down the line, and managers will need to be mindful of how much to push their World Cup players, especially amid the searing summer months. For now, the teams affected by World Cup call-ups will have to ride out the tournament and hope they don’t lose too much ground in the standings.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.