Weeks like this are what makes MLS a very tough league to facilitate.
It’s not only the busiest midweek to date, with five games to be played Wednesday, it presents teams with those daunting travel schedules unheard of in most countries. Many teams around the world double up on games during the same week but in MLS, sometimes that entails a long journey across thousands of miles and several time zones.
This week, Vancouver and Chicago drew the short straw. After beating the Fire, 2-1, Wednesday at BC Place, Vancouver hops across Canada to play at Toronto Saturday. A new, expanded BMO Field and a surging TFC squad is daunting enough; a 72-hour turnaround including a long flight is the kind of challenge few coaches and squads ever endure. Chicago follows the 'Caps cross-continent to play at New England, though unlike the 'Caps, Chicago didn't play last weekend so it started a brutal trip fresher and more rested.
Such tales can be told by just about every MLS team during the course of a 34-game season.
The Galaxy played at home Sunday and then zipped across the country to battle Philly to a 2-2 tie on just two days’ rest, but it doesn’t have a game this weekend. In compiling a schedule that necessitates teams traveling between coasts and playing twice within a few days, MLS tries to give those teams a weekend off on either end. It isn’t always successful.
Not always when a team laments playing three games in seven/eight/nine days or four matches in 12 days is there a cross-country flight involved, but it happens often enough in a league which has 14 of its 20 teams clustered in the Pacific or Eastern time zones.
Of the nine Eastern teams, only Chicago isn’t in the Eastern time zone. This makes intraconference scheduling and traveling much easier than the infrequent jaunts west, and though the jaunt to Florida takes a few hours, there's no time change. The Western Conference is a little more spread out, with five Pacific zone teams, two in the Mountain section and three in the Central.
Last month, the Red Bulls played Sporting Kansas City at home on Saturday and were in San Jose the following Wednesday; an extra day between games and three hours gained by flying west instead of east didn’t help at either end; the Red Bulls lost both games, 2-0. They also lost at Colorado April 16 on their way home three days after falling to the Quakes. It’s hard to imagine a rougher itinerary than a cross-country flight followed by a game at altitude compressed into a few days.
A busy travel schedule compounded by altitude might explain, in part, the Red Bulls’ struggles. Back on a regular diet of one game per week for the past three weeks, the Red Bulls have won twice and tied once.
The Timbers thought they’d straightened out their rocky start a week and half ago when they drew 1-1 at New England on a Wednesday and came home to beat Toronto FC, 2-1, four days later. Then they took a short trip to Vancouver last weekend and stumbled to a 2-1 defeat after taking the lead. They were outshot, 26-10, and overrun by the eager ‘Caps. Can’t blame travel for that.
Sometimes the cross-country scheduling actually makes sense. At the end of this month, Seattle plays at New England on Saturday, then heads to Washington, D.C., for a Wednesday game at RFK. While such trips make sense logistically, a team can typically spend more on travel by playing two road games in a short span of time because of additional nights of hotel costs and extra flights.
After those two games, however, the Sounders take a break of more than two weeks for the Copa America Centenario, and get back to work with -- you guessed it -- a cross-country flight to play at Red Bull Arena June 19. Taking a break for the Centenario also takes away two weekends of league play, which pushes more games into midweek slots.
And given the choice, some coaches would prefer to take a pair of cross-country trips to play on the opposite coast rather than play two road games within three or four days. The rhythm of a regular practice schedule and match every weekend usually produces the most consistent performances.
Expansion will place more teams in the Central time zone -- Minnesota likely in 2018, perhaps St. Louis, Detroit and San Antonio down the road -- which gives the league greater flexibility in scheduling matches and television times. But if more teams also translates to more games per team, and thus more midweek dates, the problems inherent in a league spread across a vast landscape will persist.