By Ridge Mahoney
The MLS season that started earlier than any other is already starting to pile up the pressure.
Fifteen games, including six midweek matches, will be played Wednesday through Sunday. It’s the most crowded portion of the schedule except for the week of July 4, when most teams will play twice. This week, 11 teams will double up, and since all but Chicago, Chivas USA and D.C. United played last weekend as well, many of them are severely stretched to keep enough healthy bodies on hand.
The numerical imbalance between the conferences and odd number of teams – nine in the Western Conference, 10 in the East – complicate scheduling. Western teams play each other three times, but Eastern teams play seven intraconference foes three times and the other two twice.
So while some teams are making a road swing through the other conference, others are toggling back and forth. By loading up on intraconference games, the league has eased somewhat the travel burdens for teams that must play twice in a span of four or five days. But the unequal number of teams between the conferences also mandates periodic crossing over.
Probably nobody in the MLS offices expected New York and Montreal to be two of four teams tied atop the Eastern Conference with 17 points, but that’s the scenario heading into their match Wednesday at Red Bull Arena. For the weekend, Montreal heads home to face Real Salt Lake, and the Red Bulls head to New England.
After losing 1-0 at Colorado last weekend, Toronto FC has continued west to play at San Jose Wednesday. TFC does not play this weekend and has a relatively long break from league play until it hosts Columbus May 18.
Conference rival Houston is not so lucky. After beating the Galaxy, 1-0, at Home Depot Center Sunday, it crossed the country (and the conference boundary) to play D.C. United at RFK Stadium on Wednesday. Then it returns home for a showdown with Sporting Kansas City in another Sunday night affair.
“I actually think it’s great for the fans,” says SKC coach Peter Vermes of additional rivalries stemming from increased head-to-head encounters. “It’s great all the way around, because at the end, if we’re going to make the conferences count, it has to be the way it is now. We had sort of a mishmash of that before. We were kind of like single-table, but we weren’t. The conferences meant something, but they didn’t.
“Now, conference play means a lot, especially since it’s an unbalanced schedule. As always, you win at home and tie on the road as much as you can. But there’s always something extra when you play those conference games.”
Overall points leader FC Dallas (6-1-2), which has won five in a row at home, can pad its lead when it hosts Portland and D.C. United. Western rival RSL is in the East this week, to play New England and then Montreal.
Hard-hit by injuries, the Colorado Rapids get a little bit of a break by the scheduling. They sit out the Wednesday action and then head to Columbus to face the Crew, which is also not involved midweek.
Chris Klute, Shane O’Neil, Tony Cascio, Kevin Harbotte, Clint Irwin, Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown have logged a lot of minutes for the Rapids, which are fifth in the Western Conference with a 3-4-3 record. They’ve already played seven intraconference games, including two against Rocky Mountain Cup rival RSL.
Lightened schedules during the Hexagonal-heavy month of June have pushed games into May and July, during which the Gold Cup will also force teams to juggle rosters. Routinely, more than two dozen MLS players leave their clubs for Hexagonal commitments and though many of the names may change, the Gold Cup in July will take its toll as well.
So teams that can spread the minutes around early in the season will reap the rewards later. Galaxy forwards Jack McBean, Jose Villarreal and Charlie Rugg have seen the field a lot, as has rookie Greg Cochrane.
When games are packed closer together, coaches need more bodies.
“The only good thing about having so many injuries is that it gives more time to other guys, and they get the chance to step up and show the coaches what they can do,” says veteran midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, whose post-concussion recovery and minor knocks have limited him to 132 minutes this season. “In our case, the young guys are doing so well the coaches will have some tough choices to make when the experienced guys come back.”