Concerns are being raised about how Major League Soccer handles travel snags and scheduling after some tough games for two Canadian teams.
The Montreal Impact was scheduled to fly to Boston on Tuesday evening, but its flight was first delayed for five hours, then cancelled entirely.
MLS clubs are allotted four charter flights a season and must use commercial airlines for the rest of the year.
After its commercial flight was cancelled on Tuesday, the Impact was forced to use one of its charter flights on Wednesday morning in order to get to a game against the New England Revolution on time.
Team spokesman Patrick Vallée said the switch came with some logistical issues, including finding an airport that could accommodate the last-minute booking and clearing customs.
He said players finally arrived at their hotel around 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday – just four hours before kickoff.
“The good part is that we won the game,” Vallée said of the 3-0 result. “I don’t know if they used it as an extra motivation for the game, not as an excuse, and they did very well.”
The Impact asked the league to postpone the match because staff were concerned about whether players could adequately prepare, Vallée said.
An MLS employee with knowledge of the situation said officials reviewed the circumstances and determined Montreal would not be at a disadvantage due to the travel delays, so the game went ahead as scheduled.
The employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said when similar travel situations arise, they are examined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account player safety and how teams will be affected.
The MLS Players Association voiced concerns about the Impact’s situation on Twitter, saying in a post that “these type of travel issues have a significant impact on safety and performance, which should be the top priority for everyone involved.”
Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush also expressed concerns with his team’s travel woes on Twitter.
“It was never a matter of ‘convenience’ for us,” he wrote on Wednesday night. “It was a [matter] of making sure the players weren’t put in a position to get injured. Don’t let our result tonight cover the fact this was a complete debacle.”
The Impact isn’t the only Canadian team voicing concerns about travel in the MLS.
Earlier this week, Vancouver Whitecaps coach Marc Dos Santos called on the league to review its schedule so clubs aren’t forced to criss-cross the continent in a condensed time frame.
The Whitecaps faced a gruelling eight-day stretch earlier this month where they played a Friday night game in Chicago, followed by a Wednesday night contest in Vancouver and a Saturday afternoon game in Orlando.
“When we arrived in Orlando Thursday night, we didn’t know what hit us. And Friday morning, when we got up, it was shocking, where recovery, it was tough,” Dos Santos said.
Soccer is an endurance sport and high-performance athletes need more time to recover in between games, he added.
“I’m disappointed that the [Orlando] game wasn’t played with at least 72 hours of recovery. I’m not a guy of excuses, it’s just a fact. You need in the big leagues of the world, you need to give the 72 hours of recovery.”
The Whitecaps dropped a 1-0 decision to Orlando City SC last Saturday, after taking a 1-0 home win over Los Angeles FC and battling Chicago to a 1-1 draw.
As the league’s northwestern-most club, the Whitecaps are used to being on the road.
Team staff do a few different things to keep players healthy and in peak condition as they travel, said Ben Sporer, who works in sports science for the club.
Extra attention is paid to nutrition and hydration in transit, and the athletes stay on a West Coast schedule, eating, sleeping and training at the same times they would in Vancouver, he explained.
“We sort of keep them on the same pattern that they’ve been used to,” Dr. Sporer said. “Basically from the standpoint of the players, they don’t feel like they’re dealing with this circadian rhythm change that throws you off and makes you feel fatigued later in the day.”
While most high-level sports leagues involve intense travel schedules, soccer is a different game than basketball or hockey, and players’ bodies have to respond accordingly, he added.
“With the impact that the [MLS] players have for 90-minute games, they have a lot of loading on the body, a lot of running for 90 minutes, they’re running consistently for that period of time, there’s no breaks throughout it, so it’s all about recovery,” he said.
The league needs to make sure that if a team is playing a midweek game, their travel schedule allows time for players to rest and train, Dos Santos said.
“Something has to happen,” he said. “[The] MLS schedule’s going to be more and more condensed, there’s going to be more and more three games in eight days.”