Minnesota United leading scorer Robin Lod sustained a calf injury in training last Friday morning, one that wasn’t reported until 30 minutes before Minnesota kicked off a nationally televised match against the LA Galaxy on Saturday.
Some 10 days earlier, MLS assist leader Carles Gil was ruled out of the New England Revolution’s home game against Nashville SC with an injury reported late the night before via anonymous sourcing by the SB Nation site that covers the team.
A few days before that, reigning MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo missed Toronto FC’s gameday roster against Nashville with a leg injury revealed only in pregame comments manager Javier Perez to Canadian broadcasters TSN.
None of the three players were listed on the club’s official injury reports prior to those games. And while last-minute injuries happen in pro sports, these recent ones shine a light on an injury reporting system that is in drastic need of improvement as Major League Soccer continues wooing the American sports betting public.
(Full disclosure: In addition to my MLS writing for Forbes.com, I am an active MLS bettor and handicapper for ActionNetwork.)
Sports gambling has become a major part of MLS’ strategy to make inroads with new fans. Last year, MLS became the first major American sports league to list gambling odds for games on its official league website. The year before, it became the first American league to allow individual clubs to pursue jersey sponsorship agreements with domestic gambling firms.
It was a sensible decision following a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for individual states to legalize sports betting.
Because betting is already legal throughout much of the world, soccer already has more of an established legalized betting culture than most American sports. And for a league that struggles at times for exposure, getting odds prominently displayed on popular gambling websites is essentially free advertisement.
But if MLS wants to retain interest among bettors, it needs to fall in line with other North American leagues in terms of how strictly injuries and other availability issues are monitored. Because between the nature of soccer overall and the lack of depth on MLS rosters, a star injury can have as much impact on the potential outcome for a game as that of a starting pitcher in baseball or a starting quarterback in football.
Like the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, Major League Soccer requires does clubs to disclose player availability status. But there are obvious cracks in the system.
Generally, teams are expected to file their availability report 48 hours before each game, which is usually before their final training session ahead of the match. The league only requires players be listed as “questionable” or “out.” And teams aren’t required to list the kind of injury or availability issue a player is dealing with.
That alone is less transparent than the other North American leagues. But the real problem is what happens after: essentially, nothing.
Compare it to the other popular American pro sports.
In the NFL, there is no update to the injury report following Friday until inactives are announced 90 minutes before kickoff. But reporters have access to locker rooms and the first 15 minutes of practice every day but the day before gameday, making it hard to miss if an important player is nursing even something minor.
Coaches disclose if players are limited in their practice activities. And practice the day before a game is normally a walk-through, which makes injuries in those sessions exceptionally rare.
In the NBA and NHL, unless a team is playing on back-to-back days or an afternoon game, reporters have access to a morning shoot-arounds or morning skates on the day of a game. Coaches address the media at morning skate in the NHL, and 90 minutes before tip-off in the NBA.
In MLB, managers meet with reporters twice daily — once several hours before a game and once immediately after — except on rare occasions.
In every case, it’s far harder for a crucial injury to go undetected.
To be fair, these leagues don’t have to fight the same cultural battle as MLS, which is often working with coaches and players from other countries with far more restrictive media environments.
The amount of information and access MLS teams freely give is greater than most leagues on the planet.
There’s also the fact that MLS media coverage lags those other major U.S. sports. Say the league required managers to have a pregame media session 90 minutes before kickoff. It’s not a guarantee anyone would show up — particularly for the manager who is on the road.
Even so, the lack of injury disclosure is a problem that is in the league’s best interest to solve, and it’s not a difficult one.
The easiest fix is to change the injury reporting deadline to 24 hours and separate it from the rest of the media information process. This would take more resources, but only marginally so, and could be something the league’s gambling partners could even help fund.
And if teams are submitting their injury reports after their final training sessions, there’s no reason to leave out situations like Lod or Pozuelo from the “questionable” category, even if you don’t disclose exactly the kind of injury. If teams aren’t truthful, it’s easy enough to make them pay with their wallet.
No system is perfect. There will always be the sneaky injuries that pop up in pregame warm-ups, and there will always be managers who simply decide to give a veteran the night off during a busy stretch. But it can easily be a lot better.
With 14 states now offering sports betting, and nine more set to do so in the near future (According to ActionNetwork), MLS is making a first impression on a lot of new potential consumers. It would be a shame to do so as the league you shouldn’t bet on because of dodgy injury reporting.