By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 2, 2023) US Soccer Players – Most of MLS kicked off the new season last weekend. Yet for the league’s busiest teams, the grind really begins in earnest this coming week. That’s because the onset of Concacaf Champions League play means a three-game week for the five clubs participating in that tournament, necessitating some significant international travel.
The Philadelphia Union, for example, will fly south to Fort Lauderdale to play Inter Miami on Saturday, then jet directly to El Salvador to face Alianza in the first-leg of their CCL round of 16 series on Tuesday before returning home to host Chicago on the following Saturday.
Thanks to the steady expansion of the MLS calendar, there will be plenty more of those congested weeks for everyone in the months ahead. A calendar that ran from April to mid-October upon launch in 1996 now spans from February to December. This year’s slate has grown particularly intense, thanks to a proliferation of non-league matches.
An entire international tournament, the newly expanded Leagues Cup, will take up a month this summer. Meanwhile, the new playoff format enlarges the postseason via a play-in phase and the return of three-game series in the first round. Above all this looms the continent’s massive diversity of climates, which makes it difficult to push either end of the season further into winter.
Factor in the expanded Concacaf Champions League slated to debut next year, and a successful MLS team could play ten more games in 2024 than they would have in 2022, moving north of 60 total matches. That’s a bump of nearly 20%. As Forbes.com noted, that’s right in the ballpark of the 61 fixtures Manchester City played with a far larger and more expensively-assembled squad in about nine months en route to the English Premier League and FA Cup titles and the UEFA Champions League final in its 2020-21 season.
MLS roster sizes and budgets are not growing at nearly the same speed. The updated rules and regulations posted just days before opening weekend reflect a rise of about 6% in the baseline salary budgets, with precious few additional resources to help coaches manage the increased physical demands being asked of their squads.
“Even if we don’t make the playoffs, it will still be the most games we’ve probably ever played in a season,” Philly head coach Jim Curtin pointed out in a recent interview with The Athletic. “I wish the rosters grew a little bit. That would soften the blow.”
So coaches and chief soccer officers with trophy-hunting ambitions face familiar conundrums. They can try to spread the same spending thinner across the roster to build the kind of depth that allows for reserves who can limit the drop off from starters to backups, and risk losing that extra bit of top-end quality that can make such a difference in MLS. They can put faith in young players and elevate academy products to fill the gaps, and risk dropping results due to the mistakes that almost always come with inexperience.
“It’s a heavy lift,” LA Galaxy coach Greg Vanney told the Los Angeles Times. “It’ll be interesting to see teams, what their different strategies are inside of that. Some teams are built to have a top 14 and they play the vast majority of the minutes. But that’s a lot for 14 players to carry. Some teams are built with a lot more depth and they spread their money a bit wider. They might be built for a longer season but maybe they lack a little bit of quality.”
Even the most adept management can get wrecked by a few poorly-timed injuries or suspensions, forcing sobering calculations about which objectives really matter the most.
“Certainly we are aware of the pitfalls, of the challenges that come with multiple competitions,” LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington said last week. “You add Leagues Cup to that, which is a competition that we as a club will take very seriously, and it’s going to become a matter of balancing priorities. We want to win everything that we’re in, but sometimes logic and reason must prevail.”
LAFC is widely perceived by themselves and others to be one of MLS’s most ambitious franchises. They won an MLS Cup-Supporters’ Shield double last season. This probably isn’t exactly the kind of soundbite league leaders would hope to be hearing from the champions at the dawn of a new campaign. As decision makers at LAFC and elsewhere will tell you, that’s just the situation the spending limitations have imposed on them.
“The biggest difference between this current roster and the roster from last season is depth, and now speaking about the lack thereof,” head coach and USMNT alum Steve Cherundolo told Pro Soccer Wire. “We aren’t as deep as we were last year at this moment in time. That could change but at the moment we are not, and so we will have to be smart about our rotations.”
His club also sought to pick up younger and more versatile contributors and those with more durability, “a more robust profile of player,” in Thorrington’s words, to manage the extra wear and tear. The rest of MLS will surely be watching to see how successful LAFC and Philly, who project to be among the league’s busiest teams, are at juggling all the minutes and priorities. Reaching unprecedented achievements may be a challenge under the familiar roster restrictions of yesteryear.
More from Charles Boehm:
- FC Cincinnati assistant Dominic Kinnear on “formation, freedom, ability, and then opportunity”
- Daryl Dike: Back on the grind and looking forward
- USMNT players and the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League, Europa League knockouts
- Leeds United and other notable US enclaves abroad
Photo by LAFC