Modest salary budgets and significant travel demands extract an inevitable toll on the quality of play when fixture congestion increases.
In an ideal world, last night would have offered up two entertaining matches capable of showcasing the burgeoning strength of MLS.
Three of the projected top sides in the league took the field on Wednesday night. There were injuries and suspensions (more on those later) for all four teams to accommodate, but both matches possessed enough players with the necessary quality to offer up lively fare.
It never arrived. Aside from the usual dose of late Rocky Mountain drama between Colorado and Real Salt Lake, the rather mundane games produced just one goal and struggled captivate or enthrall for long stretches.
There are specific reasons why this particular pair of games fell flat. All four sides wrestled with selection issues as the likes of Conor Casey, Landon Donovan, Will Johnson and Pablo Mastroeni missed out through injury and suspension. In addition to the concerns about player availability, Colorado and Real Salt Lake slogged through wretched conditions in Utah with the home side also burdened by considerable travel demands over the past two weeks.
While those instant factors did play a role in the mediocre proceedings last night, they do not entirely explain away the greater problems highlighted by their occurrence.
MLS clubs generally do not possess the necessary depth or quality to adequately manage the congestion created by midweek matches and maintain the usual standard of play. It is a deficiency caused largely by structural considerations surrounding roster composition and travel requirements.
Although MLS expanded rosters during the offseason to facilitate the return of the reserve league, its modest and prescribed five percent increase to the salary budget ($2.68 million) did not leave clubs much room to bolster their 20-man senior rosters with quality players.
While the top half of most rosters may have improved in some locales, the bottom half of rosters generally weakened across the league – Colorado and Real Salt Lake, it must be said, stand out as exceptions – as Portland and Vancouver filled out their squads and shuttled players around the league in the expansion draft.
Significant travel demands exacerbate the problems created by reduced depth. Extra matches and extra miles require coaches place additional strain on coaches and players to mitigate the corresponding fatigue. In order to address those concerns during the midweek fixture or one of the surrounding matches, coaches often field sides incapable of conjuring up a decent showing to parcel out the appropriate amount of playing time. It is a scenario that impacts multiple games, not just one.
Similar foibles ravage clubs across the world as they fulfill their fixture lists, but the usual effects are amplified under these circumstances. In short, the addition of two clubs and four extra matches to the schedule will almost certainly increase the number of poor matches taking place across MLS this season.
Take the three true midweek matches from this season as possible examples of the greater trend and the wider ramifications:
- April 6: Vancouver 1, New England 1: Three dismissals, two heavy losses on the following weekend after a lengthy flight to the next match and one fixture lacking in real quality.
- April 13: Toronto FC 0, Los Angeles 0: A third consecutive nil-nil draw between the sides saw the Galaxy hit the woodwork three times, but the visitors are more likely to rue suspension-inducing cards to David Beckham (a fifth yellow) and Juninho (a late red card) ahead of their third match in nine days at Chicago on Sunday.
- April 13: Real Salt Lake 1, Colorado 0: Fabian Espindola's stoppage-time goal added a late exclamation point to a Rocky Mountain Cup match devoid of its usual spark.
The concerns about the impact of fixture congestion and midweek matches did not crop up overnight with these three affairs, but the potential solutions remain difficult to integrate into the league's overall plan.
Expanding the scheduling footprint to reduce the need for midweek matches appears unpalatable due to attendance and weather considerations. Increasing the salary budget by a significant margin looks unlikely after MLS collectively bargained with the MLS Players Union for an automatic five percent increase on a yearly basis. Limiting the introduction of expansion teams to prevent the increased cannibalization of talent contradicts the league's need to continue its growth and widen its geographical footprint in the United States.
Until MLS amends its approach or somehow locates the perfect solution for its Board of Governors to approve, it will continue to grapple with the effects of nights like last night on surrounding matches and the wider impact on the overall quality of play.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.Follow Goal.com on to get the latest soccer news directly. Check out Goal.com's page; be part of the best soccer fan community in the world!