Every time FIFA international dates pop up on the calendar, the debate around Major League Soccer to observe it and pause the season takes center stage.
Although there is a shortened schedule this weekend, the teams participating in Week 27 will suffer from at least one major loss to international duty.
No game is more affected by international call-ups than Sunday's clash between the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas at Mapfre Stadium (7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1). When both teams are at full strength, they are two of the most watchable teams in the league. But with Columbus down nine players, including the league's top scorer Kei Kamara and FC Dallas without the dynamic Fabian Castillo, the match will be watered down.
While it is great for MLS to have such a wealth of talent now, it does have its downside, especially in a week like this, where Columbus has a chance to earn a vital three points out of conference. But instead of trotting out its starters and using the FC Dallas clash as a nice September litmus test, Columbus will send plenty of reserves to the pitch on Sunday.
FC Dallas will be able to field most of its first-team players, including center-back Matt Hedges, but the Hoops are a completely different team without Castillo, Blas Perez and Tesho Akindele. Sunday's game is the one match this weekend with the most international absences, but the other four will also see some sides in difficulty with a play-off berth on the line.
Orlando City will be without Kaka and midfield enforcer Darwin Ceren for their trip to Gillette Stadium on Saturday to face the New England Revolution. The Revs, who are fresh off a road win in Philadelphia, will be without the services of Jermaine Jones. The USMNT midfielder earned high praise from manager Jay Heaps after the victory at PPL Park in Week 26.
We're still trying to figure out how the Chicago Fire are still in the play-off race, but we could also say that about the other four teams in contention for the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference. For their crucial six-pointer with Montreal on Saturday, the Fire will be missing Joevin Jones and Matt Polster.
Without two of their better defensive-minded players, Chicago will be seen as a major underdog against an Impact side looking to impress interim boss Mauro Biello in his first game on the sidelines since the firing of Frank Klopas on Aug. 30. The Impact will not be able to call upon center-back Laurent Ciman, who is playing for Belgium at the moment, but should have most of their stars ready for Week 27.
Out in Seattle, Toronto FC will have Michael Bradley in the starting 11, but Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco will not make the trip to CenturyLink Field. Altidore is back with the United States men's national team for the first time since the CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage ended, while Giovinco would've been with Italy if he hadn't picked up a knock in Week 26.
The Reds do have Herculez Gomez and Robbie Findley in the squad at forward, but neither are in the form the departed duo were. To add to Toronto's misery, Seattle is working toward full strength and could have all of its designated players on the field at some point on Saturday if all goes well.
Saturday's final kick-off in San Jose features a pair of clubs without key pieces. The Earthquakes, who have used strong play in the defensive midfield to go on a four-game winning streak ,will not have Marc Pelosi or Anibal Godoy at that spot on the field. Philadelphia, which is now in a must-win situation every week, will have to start John McCarthy in goal with Andre Blake away with Jamaica.
The good news, if there is any, for some of the teams affected by international call-ups is that they are playing an out-of-conference match that will probably not play a role in tiebreakers at the end of the season. But Chicago, Orlando and Montreal have to carry on regardless in games that could either open up or close the door on the Eastern Conference play-off race.
Finding a solution to the international date problem is harder than it seems since the days during the week in the summer that would hold make-up games are used by clubs to create more revenue with friendlies against European sides. When fall rolls around, the challenge of scheduling around the CONCACAF Champions League hits the league office. And if you try to fit the games in at the start of the season, it will be seen as too many matches in a short window to begin the year.
Since this has been a weird quirk in the MLS schedule for a long time, clubs are used to being two-deep at every position. But building depth is a much easier process for a big-budget team like Seattle or LA than it is for a smaller-market club like Columbus.
Although we will be lamenting what specific teams would be able to do with players like Kamara, Castillo and Altidore on the field, we have to work past that and try to enjoy the condensed weekend of action as much as possible.
Week 27 Matches
Orlando City at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m. ET
Chicago Fire at Montreal Impact, 8 p.m. ET
Toronto FC at Seattle Sounders, 10 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Union at San Jose Earthquakes, 10:30 p.m. ET
FC Dallas at Columbus Crew, 7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
Players to Watch
Ethan Finlay, RM, Columbus Crew
Many would argue Ethan Finlay is deserving of a USMNT call-up, and he probably would've received a shout from Jurgen Klinsmann if the Yanks had taken care of business at the Gold Cup. But instead of donning the red, white and blue for the first time, Finlay will have to wait until after the CONCACAF Cup—yes the one-game play-off with Mexico has a fancy name now—to get his chance.
With Kamara, Justin Meram and Waylon Francis all away with their respective national teams, the pressure will be on Finlay to create on the wings. Federico Higuain should be able to handle the load in the middle of the park, but with two key wing contributors out, Finlay will need to thrive with all of the attention on him in order for the Crew to take three points from the match against FC Dallas.
Michael Bradley, CM, Toronto FC
We all know what Michael Bradley is capable of on the defensive end of the field, but he's caught a few of us off guard with his hot streak in the final third recently for Toronto FC. Luckily for the Reds, Bradley's run of form in front of goal has come at the right time. The USMNT player will have capable veterans in Gomez and Findley to work with, but neither is a known quantity this season due to a lack of playing time.
If Osvaldo Alonso is healthy for Seattle, Bradley will face one of his toughest challenges to date this season. With the terrier of the Sounders midfield staring him in the face, Bradley must be able to distribute through close channels in midfield in order to break down the Seattle defense at CenturyLink Field.
Tranquillo Barnetta, AM, Philadelphia Union
Summer signing Tranquillo Barnetta has had a few weeks to work on his fitness and get acclimated to the Philadelphia system. But on Saturday at Avaya Stadium, he will need to turn his play up a notch and round into midseason form with Cristian Maidana out due to a boneheaded red card he received for spitting in Week 26.
Barnetta will line up centrally to start the match against San Jose, just like Maidana does. But unlike the Argentinian, the Swiss World Cup veteran will have to stay inside since the players around him aren't as flexible as he is. If he can combine well with Sebastien Le Toux and Eric Ayuk on the wings as well as forward C.J. Sapong, the Union might be able to carve through the Earthquakes' back four.
Match to Watch
Chicago Fire at Montreal Impact
As much as we want to focus in on the matches in Seattle and Columbus because of the names involved in those clashes, the one match that matters the most in Week 27 occurs at Stade Saputo in Montreal.
With games in hand drying up and a new coach in charge, the pressure is on the Impact to make the play-offs by way of the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. As we saw during Frank Klopas' time as manager, the standards the organization have are incredibly high. Despite guiding Montreal to the CONCACAF Champions League final and having them in a play-off spot for most of the year, Klopas was let go following the loss to Toronto in Week 26.
Now Montreal is in seventh place with four games in hand on sixth-place Orlando, which is not exactly the most stable side in MLS at the moment. Winning at home against another play-off contender in Chicago would create some needed space between the Impact and the other contenders. Montreal would receive more help if Orlando and Philadelphia lose on the road as expected.
As for Chicago, some could argue Frank Yallop should've been fired earlier in the season, but despite all the shortcomings, the Fire are only two points back of Orlando and could jump over Montreal with a road win on Saturday. However, the Fire have the worst road record in the league. Chicago has lost seven games, tied five and won zero on its league travels. The best time to finally change that would be on Saturday in Quebec.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.