Busy midweek schedules add to unique travel woes in MLS

By Ridge Mahoney

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.

6 comments about "Busy midweek schedules add to unique travel woes in MLS".
  1. Phil Hardy, May 12, 2016 at 11:31 a.m.

    There's an interesting article on the English Guardian website now about John Terry coming to the US and if he's too old. Of course, Chelsea fans all think he's still got it and slag off the MLS but they miss the point you've just made. Travel in MLS is crippling. Travel in the Premier League still often takes place by bus because it can. MLS is not an easy league for older legs. And you didn't mention the heat and humidity.

  2. Ric Fonseca, May 12, 2016 at 2:02 p.m.

    Hey, this is somewhat akin to one signing up for the military when the recruit is told and then admonished that one goes where the needs of the service are needed and one not need to cry, hue, moan and groan when one must pack his/her gear to move to another base, place, etc. So the same can be said about those guys from over the pond and now the sage writers such as Ridge M. to lament about the vast differences to travel, and all one has to do when looking for a model, is to look at the current pro-sports leagues, e.g. MLB, NBA, NHL, and at times the NFL. Golly gee and willikers, pilgrim, I sure as hell do not and have not read any articles of these "professional" athletes bitch, moan, and groan about their travel schedules, now do we? So what if teams in the EPL do bus travel (hey those "coaches" do also have some danged nice amenities, eh wot?) jolly good ole England is a pretty nice and small country, and the same goes on the other side of the Channel. So my point, is why raise this ugly head, so if the old-timers/has-been players can't take the heat (pun intended) then get the hell outta the soccer kitchen!

  3. Allan Lindh, May 12, 2016 at 2:20 p.m.

    The article is right, the travel schedule is crippling. But that is not just a product of size of the country, it is product of stupidity of the schedule makers. When teams travel to the opposite coast, they should play at least two games there before they go home. And they should get a full week buffer on either size. I know it would be a little more work for the schedulers -- that's what they get paid the big bucks for. A little known fact is that until a decade or two ago, MLB used a couple to do their schedule, did it in their spare time as a hobby. Scheduling intelligently is not easy, but it is not impossible.

  4. Ric Fonseca replied, May 12, 2016 at 11:32 p.m.

    Agreed Allan, but in today's world of computer programs, etc., it CAN be done! Jeepers weeper, and golly gee, back in the day - hrking back to the late '70's, when I started the NCAA program at CSUN, the fellow I replaced, Svi Friedman, had been working on a scheduling program, taking all of tour conferences's teams, play dates, home-away dates, and put together a darned good, though somewhat workable schedule for the college fall season. Also, some officiating groups to include Dan Goldman also began to delve into referee scheduling that included a lot of paper and pencil, but it was functional, all of this taking place during the late 70's and into the '80s. I also put together the SCIAC schedule by hand, pencil and paper! So what's the big effing deal? You're - MLS players - are supposedly pros, you get paid some decent dinero for your efforts, so quit yer bitchin' and get the job done, and for sure, journalists, don't add fuel to this little fire!!!

  5. Wooden Ships, May 12, 2016 at 10:40 p.m.

    I guess common sense scheduling should prevail, however its derived. We should still aim in the future for summers off. Get international. Ric mentioned military demands, deployments, living conditions, peril, you name it. Lived it. Other sports deal with it. You really need to realize you are living the dream playing professionally. This is a non issue. Travel and play, its brutal-please.

  6. Ric Fonseca replied, May 12, 2016 at 11:33 p.m.


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