MLS releases full 2017 schedule, including break in July for Gold Cup
MLS unveiled its 2017 season schedule on Thursday, and for the first time it includes a break for the group stage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The domestic league will go dark for almost two weeks during a major international tournament for the third time in four years, with no games scheduled between July 7-18.
MLS also took time off during the last two World Cups and for last summer's Copa America Centenario. Last year's hiatus for the U.S.-hosted Copa had no negative impact at the gate or on television viewership, as MLS set attendance and viewership records last season.
But as much as the move shows how the league has evolved over its 22 seasons -- MLS played through the World Cup in 1998, 2002 and '06 -- it's also a practical matter. With so many players from around the CONCACAF region now dotting MLS rosters, many teams would have struggled to put a quality product on the field during the competition.
However, MLS will continue to play with a reduced schedule through most FIFA windows.
Six teams -- Columbus Crew SC, Minnesota United, the New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers -- have games slated for March 25, one day after the U.S. national team faces Honduras in a high-stakes qualifier for next year's World Cup in Russia, and three days before another pivotal qualifier in Panama.
A half-dozen clubs will also play games during June's international window, in part because the schedule is so packed.
The arrival of Minnesota and Atlanta United as expansion teams brings the total number of regular-season matches to 374, an all-time high. Each club will play 34 games in all, the same as last year. The two newcomers will face off on March 12 and Aug. 13, with ESPN networks broadcasting both meetings.
MLS announced the home openers for each team three weeks ago. The season opens March 3, when Minnesota travels to Portland.
Among the other key matches are a March 5 tilt between Orlando City and New York City FC that will serve as the curtain-raiser for Orlando's new downtown stadium.
Atlanta will christen Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home it is to share with the NFL's Falcons, on July 30 against Orlando, while the defending champion Seattle Sounders will meet Toronto FC May 6 in a MLS Cup rematch.
The league has also taken steps to reduce the number of games played during the day in blistering summer temperatures. Just nine matches will be held on early summer afternoons, down from 15 in 2016.
Five of those games will be played in cooler northern climates in Minnesota, Montreal Portland, Seattle and Toronto. Another is set for Atlanta's new digs, which will feature air conditioning under its retractable roof.
The final weekend of the regular season -- dubbed "Decision Day" -- will again feature all clubs kicking off simultaneously, with one small change from last year. Because expansion swelled the Eastern and Western conferences to 11 teams each, one inter-conference matchup -- between the Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo on Oct. 22 -- was necessary.
That anomaly could last more than one season, as LAFC is currently the only guaranteed newcomer in 2018.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.