See more of the story

Minnesota United plays on without internationally bound Teemu Pukki, Joseph Rosales and Sang Bin Jeong on Saturday against New England at Allianz Field.

It could be worse.

The Loons played Vancouver to a 1-1 home draw in March missing seven starters all called away to play for their national teams.

Major League Soccer's decision to play its regular-season schedule through FIFA's breaks for international competitions has been a topic of conversation and contention for the league since its beginning in 1996.

New Inter Miami coach Tata Martino told reporters recently the league is seeking to avoid such scheduling starting next year.

"It is probable it will happen," he said.

Loons coach Adrian Heath is one of the opinionated voices in those conversations.

In 2023, FIFA has had two-game breaks scheduled in March, June, September, October and November, as well as the CONCACAF Gold Cup in June and July that was won by Mexico.

Heath calls such lineup interruptions frustrating, although he added, "I always say I'd never stop a player — not that we can, but I wouldn't. I know what it felt like for me when I got picked by England."

The issue has not been resolved all these many years as MLS tries to fit its 34-game schedule around U.S. Open Cup games, CONCACAF competitions and — new this summer — the successful Leagues Cup that shut down the schedule for five weeks.

Team owners are reluctant to give up bigger weekend box-office dates to play more weeknights. They've also resisted switching to a fall-to-spring schedule, as Europe uses, because of cold winter weather in northern U.S. cities and competition from the NFL season, college football and other American sports.

MLS has extended its schedule at both ends, creeping into a February start and lasting until December's MLS Cup this year. But it still can't fit everything without scheduling games during FIFA breaks.

"I understand crowds are bigger on the weekend," Heath said. "But as our supporters have proved, if there's a game, invariably people turn up. You've got your season ticket. ... Hopefully next year, common sense will prevail."

Missing Messi

Maybe next year really will be different for one reason and one name: Lionel Messi.

The Argentine superstar has taken Inter Miami from last place in the MLS regular season in June to an 11-game unbeaten streak, a Leagues Cup trophy and a spot in the U.S. Open Cup final.

Messi will miss at least three of his team's remaining 10 games to play for his country in two FIFA breaks, one that ends Tuesday and another before the MLS regular season's final week in October.

Miami hosts Sporting Kansas City on Saturday without Messi, but Heath said next time it might be your town that misses out.

"For some that might be your only chance to see Messi come to your stadium," he said. "I just think we need to look at the big picture."

Heath said Martino's words go further than his when he says something must be done.

"The fact that he's Inter Miami with the players he has probably will carry a bit more weight," Heath said. "He said you can't expect the league to keep getting better if three times a season you lose your best players. It's not logical."

Heath notes MLS' growth and improvement in recent years. The league continues to acquire young, talented international players. Messi and Atlanta United's Thiago Almada played for champion Argentina in last year's World Cup.

The better the players, the more likely they're called to their national teams — and with a team's best players missing, the more the competitive balance in games is affected.

A difficult balance

Loons veteran defender Michael Boxall isn't playing for New Zealand this window because his country has no games scheduled.

"In an ideal world, you want your best players available," Boxall said. "I'm sure every team in the league wants that. ...

"You'd think it would be only a matter of time, but here we are years deep and we're still having that conversation."

Players called to international duty travel great distances in a matter of days and back again usually after playing at least twice. Boxall has traveled 24 hours to get home.

"It's just one of those things I've had to deal with my whole career," Boxall said.

The situation can prove difficult physically and emotionally, too, for players who want to play for both club and country.

"You don't ever want players to choose between their club and their country because that just creates resentment," said U.S. national men's team starting goalkeeper Matt Turner, who moved from MLS' New England to England's Premier League last year. "You want a mutually beneficial relationship. Hopefully MLS will find a way to make the schedule fit so guys don't have to make those decisions."

Leagues in Europe and elsewhere shut down during international windows and play more midweek games.

"There's definitely good and bad," said Loons goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair, who plays for Canada's national team. "But if MLS wants to be a top league and get more international players, it's something they need to definitely look at and address."