Why is MLS playing through Copa America 2024?

A summer of soccer continues, where the world’s best come together to compete in the Copa América, European Championship and Paris Olympics. For many players, these tournaments are career highlights as they look forward to the feeling of representing their country in some of the fiercest contests.

As such, leagues from around the world have curated their schedules to allow players the opportunity to report for international duty in the summer without affecting their own on-field products. But not Major League Soccer. The American league is not pausing during the international window, instead forcing its clubs to play through the Copa, Euros and Olympics with incomplete rosters.

Teams may face up to six games without key players — 18% of the MLS regular season — much to the chagrin of some coaches and players. With many stars leaving their clubs, and some teams having to compete for fan interest with Copa América matches in the same city, it raises the question: Why is MLS playing through the summer instead of taking a break?

Gerardo “Tata” Martino, head coach of Inter Miami, has been vocal in his criticism of MLS playing through international tournaments. Inter Miami stands among the clubs that will lose the most players during the 2024 summer window, seeing as many as five players depart at a time.

During Copa América alone, Martino has been forced to construct a new starting XI as Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Matías Rojas and Benjamin Cremaschi are away for at least for five matches in June and July. Of Inter Miami’s 46 goals in MLS this season, 32 have come from either a goal or assist from Messi or Suarez, a whopping 70% of the team’s total goal haul.

These absences not only hurt his team during the window when players are away, Martino says, but it hurts the team in the long-term because Miami can’t sign more national team-quality players.

“The league needs to stop playing during international windows because that will deter the type of players we can sign,” Martino said. “Instead of signing a really good player, you’ll sign someone a little worse that will not be called up during FIFA windows. Because every international window, Copa América or Olympics, I have three or four players gone and the team feels it. So, teams may not risk signing players that may be eligible to be called up.”

Earlier this season, the South Florida team signed Rojas, Marcelo Weigandt, Julian Gressel, Nicolás Freire and Federico Redondo. Rojas is the only player to be called up to international duty (by Paraguay), while the rest remain with Inter Miami through the summer. Still, without the star players who have left, the Herons must try to maintain their momentum at the top of the Eastern Conference without the team’s best players, while many opponents retain their full rosters.

Other coaches in MLS, however, are less concerned with player absences and more about competitors being given the luxury of facing weakened sides. Portland Timbers head coach Phil Neville used Inter Miami as the prime example of the “unfair advantage” created by playing through this summer’s tournaments.

“Obviously I had never seen this — in Europe, if there is a FIFA window the league shuts down because if you take away even one player from the team, then it is an unfair advantage in the competition,” Neville told ESPN. “In a FIFA window, if you’ve got players, even one player away, then it’s an unfair advantage.”

Neville added, referring to Messi: “Look at Inter Miami: when you play them in an international window with a galaxy of stars that they’ve got — or one in particular — you’re going to have a better chance of getting a result than when he’s not there … If you catch a team not at full strength, then you can catch three points. And then another team faces a complete roster later in the season. It just doesn’t seem fair.”

MLS executives are aware that not everyone is in favor of the league playing through tournaments like Copa América and the Euros, but there are trade-offs to be made.

Brad Pursel, MLS senior vice president of game schedule management, who leads the development for the regular season and playoffs matches, says the league begins the planning process a year in advance in order to take factors like this summer’s tournaments into consideration. While his team “pays attention to FIFA windows, other international competitions, whether it’s Copa América, Gold Cups, things of that nature,” he says, the goal to fit 34 games between February and October remains the highest priority.

“Why play through Copa América? That’s a fair question,” he told ESPN. “We have historically played through such competitions. Last year we played through the Gold Cup. This year with Copa América being here, we have to play through it as well so we can maximize the MLS match dates within the footprint of our season. Is it ideal? Certainly not.

“We understand key international players will be missing from various teams but it’s also important that we maintain the number of match dates necessary for our season. And even though some key players will be missing, those summer dates are very popular dates for MLS games and for fan attendance and fan interest.”

Rather than extend the season or add more midweek matches, that means that some MLS teams will just be without their best players this summer. Across MLS, 41 players have left their clubs to play in Copa América, and eight are competing in the Euros.

The New York Red Bulls faced the New England Revolution on June 8 without five starters: Lewis Morgan, Emil Forsberg, John Tolkin, Carlos Coronel and Noah Eile. All five departed the Red Bulls to join their respective national teams, leaving head coach Sandro Schwarz to fill the gaps with substitutes while the Revolution enjoyed a full roster with no absences.

The fourth-placed Red Bulls eventually lost 1-0 to the team that was, at the time, in last place in the Eastern Conference table. The bottom-dwelling Revs went into that June 8 game with the worst record in MLS.

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St. Louis City goalkeeper Roman Bürki emphasized the difficulty of playing without a team’s best players from a player’s perspective, concluding it’s neither good for the clubs nor the league.

“I think it’s something the league can improve. I know we have a lot of games, a very tight schedule, but in my opinion you want to have the best players on TV and in the league whenever each team is playing,” he said. “Losing your best players every three for two or more games because they are traveling the world while the league is still going on is hard. It’s not good for the league.”

The lasting consequences extend beyond the bounds of a pitch or 90-minute match, affecting the roster construction that underpins every club. MLS boasts some of the strictest and most complicated roster rules in soccer. Teams must adhere to a $5.5 million salary cap, while balancing an additional $2.6m available in general allocation money and $2.4m in targeted allocation money to comply with roster spots that have exceptions for “Designated Player” and “U22” signings.

Within the confines of those rules, MLS clubs must not only seek to build a squad strong enough to sustain injuries, suspensions, multiple league tournaments, but also players leaving for international breaks.

“You have to have an eye on international duty when recruiting,” New York City FC head coach Nick Cushing told ESPN. “So, when we were recruiting and bringing in certain players, we knew that they would need to bridge the gap between players going. It tends to be that you lose your best players to international football, that’s the nature. That’s the reason I’ve chopped, changed and rotated this side, because we’re going to lose players this summer.”

The overlap between MLS and the summer tournaments is significant — MLS will see seven matchdays, 98 games total, played in the span of Copa América and the Euros.

It’s not just coaches who are forced to make some tough decisions due to Copa América. Fans in cities throughout the U.S., too, may need to decide: are they going to spend their money going to an MLS regular-season game, or a Copa América game? Kansas City, Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Orlando, Austin and New York — cities with MLS teams — also serve as host cities for Copa América.

Sporting Kansas City will host Austin FC on June 29 at Children’s Mercy Park, where the tickets range from $25 to $168 on Ticketmaster, with plenty of seats still available. Just two days later, and 23 miles away, fans can watch the U.S. men’s national team take on Uruguay in the Group C clash at Arrowhead Stadium for between $80 and $2,000 a ticket.

“If we are playing through it, and with all due respect, who is going to watch our games?” Bürki asked. “I don’t know how the schedule will be in the World Cup but it’s something the league should think about and make some changes. The World Cup players are gone for a long time. Teams that have actually invested money to bring in these players and have a good team with national team figures, it’s not fair for them too.”

Meanwhile, Pursel insisted the league has started to think about 2026, when United States, Canada and Mexico serve as hosts of the men’s FIFA World Cup, and how the month-long tournament may come to impact the season.

“I think for the World Cup in 2026, we will take a break,” he said. “MLS will take a break during that competition. The length of that break, I think, is to be determined. But given the size and the scope of the 2026 World Cup and being in North America, that is one that we will take some sort of break during that competition.”

In the meantime, however, Copa América continues — and so does MLS … without its best players.