TORONTO FC has been one of the worst clubs in Major League Soccer.

In an effort to improve, the Reds have spent millions of dollars to improve the talent on the roster, which now boasts U.S. national-team stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Last night, Toronto FC lost at Real Salt Lake, 2-1, sans Altidore and Bradley, who are with the national team in Europe for an international friendly against Switzerland tomorrow.

Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, Orlando City defender Brek Shea and Los Angeles Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes missed matches with their MLS teams for the same reason.

Given the timing of the game with Switzerland and a flight back from Europe, it is doubtful any of those players will be available for MLS matches this weekend, either.

Because MLS, unlike most of the professional soccer leagues in the world, plays a spring-to-fall schedule, it is virtually impossible to avoid some conflicts with the so-called FIFA calendar.

Domestic leagues are not mandated to release players for international duty for FIFA dates. But the governing body of soccer has said that international games during the FIFA calendar - even friendlies - take precedence over domestic-league games.

Releasing players for FIFA dates is sort of a gentleman's agreement, with an implied threat for not agreeing.

More than 50 MLS players will end up missing league games during the March 23-31 period for FIFA "Official or Friendly Matches."

Many leagues put a break in their schedules to accommodate the FIFA calendar events. MLS has all 20 clubs in action during the March period.

Again, however, since most other leagues are in the summer-winter schedule that FIFA prefers, it is easier to comply with the FIFA dates, which also occur in June, September, October and November.

For many financial, competitive and climate-related reasons, MLS should not cave in to FIFA pressure to go to a summer-winter schedule.

Still, FIFA is not going to adjust to accommodate U.S. soccer.

MLS has to find a better way to deal with the FIFA calendar because having dozens of top players miss matches because of international duty will eventually influence the competitive balance in a season.

During ESPN's broadcast of the U.S. game with Denmark, analyst Taylor Twellman said that if an American player in MLS were called to duty for every U.S. international match this year, he could miss eight matches.

That is nearly a quarter of the 34-game schedule. Depending on the players and their teams, that would definitely influence the MLS playoff race.

In the past two seasons, MLS has made a conscious push to bring members of the U.S. team back home to play professionally.

Given the importance of the national team to the continued growth of the sport in the United States and Canada - which ultimately benefits MLS - there are concessions the league must make.

The tricky balance is releasing top players but also protecting the competitive balance of the domestic league.

Fans should not have to fear that their team could miss the playoffs by a point or two because top players missed some matches for international friendlies.

"It's a complicated issue that every league in the world has to deal with," Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said. "MLS teams should deal with it the same way other leagues around the world deal with it.

"For a midweek friendly game, send their players after they have played the league matches, and on weekend friendlies don't release them," Sakiewicz said.

Sometimes that is easier said than done.

The U.S. team also played in Denmark on March 25.

MLS players were not going to play in Europe, come back to play MLS and then fly back to Europe.

It is not as if MLS completely ignores the FIFA calendar without adjusting.

During the June 8-16 break, the league has scheduled just four matches. The U.S. team is back in Europe to play the Netherlands and Germany.

I understand scheduling concerns, but top European soccer clubs can end up playing two or three times in 10 days because of league and cup matches.

MLS teams sometimes play multiple matches in tight windows because of the U.S. Open Cup.

Why can't an international match be handled in the same manner?

Sure, weekend matches draw more fans than weekday ones, but we are not talking about many dates.

Of course, some conflicts are too big to be adequately addressed.

MLS will play a full schedule during the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup hosted by the United States and Canada from July 7-26.

Given that most MLS players are internationals from CONCACAF, which includes the United States, the competitive balance of MLS will be compromised for nearly a month with many top players competing in the Gold Cup.

For its own sake, MLS cannot hold players out of that competition.

The Gold Cup is outside the FIFA calendar, but it is extremely important because it is for the championship of CONCACAF and will determine which nation represents the region at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.

There is also the fact that qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia will also begin this year. Some of those games will fall during the MLS season.

"Qualifiers are a different story," Sakiewicz said, "and for those, MLS should not play on those dates."

As Sakiewicz said, it is a complicated issue.

Still, something better has to be worked out. Toronto FC should not have to risk coming up short in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race because Altidore and Bradley were playing in an international friendly in Switzerland.

Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

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