By Jeff Rueter – SAINT PAUL, MN (Nov 23, 2017) US Soccer Players - In world soccer, few scheduling quirks draw more ire than a double-game week. It's standard practice in Europe for teams in the Champions League and Europa League. Add in domestic cup responsibilities, and it stretches even the clubs with massive budgets. Move that to MLS, and it's a tough ask for any team.
MLS operates with a lack of depth. Playing 180 minutes per week, especially in the summer, stretches those squads. Players have no choice but to cut corners on their recovery time between matches to ensure they’re ready. Once these pileup, players are more susceptible to injuries.
What forces more of those double game weeks in MLS is how the league treats the international calendar. During the regular season, if a team chooses to site these ten-day windows out, they’ll have to make their matches up midweek during a different month. As international call-ups become more of an occurrence throughout the league, fewer clubs are choosing to play on these dates.
This lack of a standard observance can cause for some scheduling curiosities. This May, Toronto FC played five games across 17 days (Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, Friday). Incredibly, they collected 13 points during this stretch, and it set them on a clear course to collect the Supporters’ Shield. Still, the frequent matches weren’t without their maladies. In the first match of the set, Sebastian Giovinco caught an injury between matches one and two. Over the four remaining fixtures in that stretch, he played just 44 minutes.
While double-game weeks are likely here to stay with a 34-match schedule, there’s an even more damning scheduling snafu that the league runs into every year. Typically, the November international break falls right in the middle of the month and directly between the conference semifinals and finals. This season, Toronto, Columbus, and Houston went 16 days between clinching their spots and playing their conference final first-leg. The Seattle Sounders waited from November 2nd to November 21st, a staggering 19 days.
On the field, this decision seemed to affect two teams more than the rest. While Houston has surged under Wilmer Cabrera, this isn’t your typical Dynamo side. Gone are the days of Dom Kinnear’s methodical bunker-and-counter sides, where established tactics took precedence over breakneck-speed action. While the frontline of Alex, Tomas Martinez, Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas are dynamic, their average age of 23.3 helped lend to a lack of composure in a big game.
Similarly, the Crew hosted a Toronto side lacking Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. The two combined for over half of the Reds’ goals this season, and Columbus had a real chance to seize control of the two-leg series. That doesn’t even factor in the massive swell of support from Columbus fans and MLS neutrals alike in the wake of Anthony Precourt’s announced intentions to move the team to Austin in 2019.
For both Houston and Columbus, it’s possible that they had too much time to plan for their home fixtures. Each hosted the reigning conference champions and wanted to impose their mark onto the series right away. Houston fell early thanks to a Gustav Svensson header in the 11th minute. They seemed to fall off the tracks completely soon after, and a Jalil Anibaba red card in the 29th may have been the kiss of death on their 2017 campaign.
Meanwhile, Columbus respected Toronto too much in the early goings. Gregg Berhalter may have stuck with his starting eleven for too long. Pedro Santos was not at his best for the entire second-half, with errant passes and heavy touches killing the Crew’s momentum. It wasn’t until the 78th minute that Berhalter made a switch, bringing on Kekuta Manneh for Santos. While Manneh rekindled the Crew’s attacking spark, it was too little, too late.
Of course, there is a measure of credit that should go to Seattle’s Brian Schmetzer and Toronto’s Greg Vanney. The two coaches drew up gameplans to stymie their hosts. Schmetzer saw an immobile and inexperienced Houston spine and attacked them directly. Nicolas Lodeiro had a great day, pulling the strings in the midfield for a complete Sounders performance. Meanwhile, Vanney adjusted due to his two forwards’ absences. Toronto played a more conservative four-man backline, able to withstand Columbus’ attacks while holding an edge in possession for six of the first half’s nine 5-minute intervals. Now, a win at home will clinch a second straight MLS Cup berth for the formerly moribund franchise.
While the international breaks have a lot to do with the gap, the league’s midweek scheduling has its benefits and hindrances for fans. Neutral viewers tend to prefer weekend kickoffs, with the conference semifinals drawing 10% more viewers for the weekend fixtures than midweek first-legs. The league’s scheduling seems to largely be swayed by American football with college on Saturdays pro on Sundays.
However, as the league continues to stabilize and become a formidable league within the North American sports landscape, the MLS playoffs seem to need a revamp. SI.com's Brian Straus and Grant Wahl suggested a pool-play format, with four teams advancing per conference. To their credit, the league is considering ditching the two-leg format for the middle rounds of the tournament, which would also favor better regular season teams.
Whatever the choice ends up being, it’s important that the league gets it right. A regular knock from football fans across the world is that the regular season doesn’t have enough importance. MLS, in turn, feels a need to compete with the other major US sports leagues. It’s a tricky balance between the two. However, a 16-day break leading into poorly-played first legs do this league no favors.
Jeff Rueter is a reporter and analyst covering Major League Soccer for The Guardian, ESPN FC, The Athletic - Minnesota, and US Soccer Players. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffrueter.