[MLS] The most critical stretch of league play dovetails with the Concacaf Champions’ League, which will stretch its four MLS representative with group games in August and September. So far, the increased load of games isn't affecting the league form of a few teams, including the surging Seattle Sounders.
When the Galaxy lost its preliminary Concacaf Champions’ League series to the Puerto Rico Islanders last month, one projected benefit would be a surge in league performance without the burden of CCL group play.
Such has not been the case. As the Galaxy has foundered, losing three of its last four league games, MLS rivals Seattle, Real Salt Lake and Columbus have closed ground in the overall points standings. Heading into this weekend’s action, the Galaxy led RSL by just three points and the Crew by two.
Since losing to the Galaxy on the Fourth of July, the Sounders have shot up the standings by winning five and tying two of their last seven league games while also playing four CCL matches.
On Wednesday, Seattle earned the right to defend its U.S. Open Cup title by beating Chivas USA, 3-1, to set up a date with Columbus, which outlasted D.C. United, 2-1, in overtime.
Both Coach Bruce Arena and defender Todd Dunivant have blamed complacency for the team’s recent struggles, which makes sense. It’s rare for any MLS team to open up a double-digit lead on its nearest competition, as the Galaxy did prior to the World Cup break. Yet is there a point at which teams playing more games actually gain an advantage by being sharper and more battle-hardened even if somewhat fatigued?
“I came from the USL world, where guys play three games in four nights,” says Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer, “so maybe I’m a little bit more hardcore it’s more of a mental thing to push through. We’re trying to construct the roster with some regard to that as well.”
Seattle signed two World Cup performers – Blaise Nkufo of Switzerland and Alvaro Fernandez of Uruguay -- to bolster its levels of experience as well as ability.
RSL added Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio during the offseason, Columbus signed Andreas Mendoza last month. “It’s certainly in the list of attributes if a guy has some international experience,” says Hanauer of strengthening a roster for multiple competitions. “It’s a positive, but first and foremost we’re looking for a guy who’s going to fit in, has the right character and attributes we strive for as a club.”
The fourth MLS representative, Toronto FC, hasn’t fared quite so well in league play, but it did manage to beat Mexican power Cruz Azul in its CCL opener. However, starting Saturday in Dallas it plays plays eight games – six in the league, two in Concacaf – in 22 days, and will face RSL once in each competition.
“You have to look at a lot of things,” says TFC coach Preki about juggling lineups for different competitions and also losing players to national-team duty, which will plague TFC this weekend with four players gone. “You want guys to rest but they all want to play unless they are so injured they cannot play.
“That is why we are always talking to the players about mental toughness, and challenging them every day in training physically and mentally. The schedule is crazy, but you always look for a chance to give players some minutes because when a player is injured and another one is suspended, what do you do? You might need that player for a big game, and if he’s not ready and you have nobody else, you’re in trouble.”
TFC doesn’t play in the U.S. Open Cup, in which many MLS coaches use their backups, yet it did have to play four Nutrilite Canadian Championship matches to qualify for the CCL preliminaries, which consisted of home and away matches with Motagua of Honduras. This month, it heads to the Estadio Azul for the return match and has trips to Chicago and Salt Lake City as well as Dallas in league action.
“I don’t care what anybody says, I think we’re in the toughest group,” says RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey of a quartet that also includes Arabe Unido of Panama, which beat TFC at home, 1-0, on Aug. 24. “It’s kind of unfortunate that these Concacaf games fall at the end of the season, but we knew it going in, and really began planning for this back in November, right after MLS Cup.
“We knew we had to have a stronger roster, and a deeper roster, and we went about signing players and using the draft with that in mind. You need talent and depth and you have to try to keep guys fresh and manage minutes and all that, but guys have to stick together and fight for each other, and I think we have a very good group of players in that regard.”
Way back when he coached D.C. United, Arena cited the team’s arduous 1998 schedule as a treat. It played more than 40 games in league and cup competitions, and its season didn’t end until Dec. 5 when it played, and won, the second leg of the Interamericana Cup against Brazilian club Vasco da Gama. United also won the Concacaf Champions Cup – which was hosted by D.C. and required just three games -- and reached MLS Cup, which it lost, 2-0, to Chicago.
“That season was great,” Arena once recalled. “We were a real soccer team. I think that was the best team we’ve ever had and that the league has ever had.” D.C. didn’t play in the Open Cup that year.
Houston repeated as league champion in 2007 despite a heavy burden of Concacaf and SuperLiga games. The league eventually mandated a team could play in only one of the two competitions per MLS season. Like Hanauer, Coach Dominic Kinnear cited the mental toughness and physical durability of his players as a prime ingredient, with one modification.
“As hard as the games can be,” he laughed, “they’d all tell you they’d rather be out there playing than practicing."