MLS needs investment in depth to manage fixture congestion

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Between May 2 (a 3-0 victory against the Philadelphia Union in the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinals) and July 8 (a 1-1 home draw with the San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS regular season), LAFC played 16 additional games. In total, the squad played 18 matches in 67 days, or roughly one every three and a half days, in cities including Salt Lake City, Utah; Kansas City, Kansas; Dallas; Houston; and León, Mexico, racking up nearly 13,000 miles’ worth of flight time. That is, simply put, a lot of soccer.

While the club’s schedule slows down slightly, head coach Steve Cherundolo and the crew could play 56 games across no fewer than five different competitions in 32 weeks.

“When the schedule came out, it was obviously a very congested schedule,” LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington said. “We have, by a significant margin, played more games up to this stage in the season than anybody else in the history of the league.”

The on-field results show a team on the ropes. During a six-game stretch in late May and June, LAFC scored a single goal while losing the Concacaf Champions League final many tapped them to win.

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Fixture congestion and the resulting fatigue are real, and it’s not just an LAFC problem. After coming out of Leagues Cup, a new addition to the MLS calendar beginning later this month, FC Cincinnati will play five matches between Aug. 20 and Sept. 2, including a rivalry Hell Is Real Derby at the Columbus Crew and a U.S. Open Cup semifinal versus Lionel Messi‘s Inter Miami CF.

“There’s no great way to tackle those two games in such a short amount of time,” FCC general manager Chris Albright said to ESPN. “I think scheduling is way more complicated than people think it is, especially with football stadiums and everything else, but this year, there have been some missteps by MLS.”

The GM spoke with ESPN two days before the U.S. men’s national team‘s Gold Cup quarterfinal win over Canada, a match that saw his squad’s stars, Brandon Vazquez and Matt Miazga, come on in the 73rd minute. “We could miss Brandon and Matt for six games,” he said. “I mean, that to me is a real miss.”

Both Albright and Thorrington expressed respect for MLS’ roster rules and a genuine excitement to build quality sides given the constraints, but there’s only so much one can do. The salary cap is a little more than $5 million, there’s another $4.5 million available to teams in allocation money, each club is afforded three designated player slots that don’t count against the cap, and there are a handful of other weird mechanisms.

Rosters, inevitably, are top-heavy, with LAFC’s nearly $17.5 million budget (the league average is $15.8 million) split between half a dozen players who make more than $1 million and a dozen on $125,000 or less. A pulled hamstring here, a knock there, and things fall apart quickly.

“Once a few injuries start creeping in, we just don’t have that margin to keep the same level of player on the field like we did at the beginning of the season,” Thorrington said. “It’s compounded when we’re playing through international breaks. It’s compounded when you have injuries at certain positions, which then increases the load on the other players in that position, which then increases their likelihood for injury. You just start to enter the vicious cycle that is really difficult to escape given the games keep coming.”

Adam Sullivan, a fitness coach and sports scientist whose Ph.D. research focused on adaptation in soccer and who has worked with teams including Liverpool, has seen this vicious cycle in his professional career. He pointed to a six-year study of one team showing a greater risk of injury during periods of fixture congestion (defined as two games within 96 hours of each other). While it’s impossible to draw a direct causal link between fixture congestion and an increase in injuries — as there are many confounding variables including travel, opposition quality, timing of the game, time of the season and more — this study and others indicate that “there is a higher risk of injury in fixture congested periods,” he says. “This is widely acknowledged.”

Players need time to recover. For games taking place within 72 hours of a previous one, research has demonstrated decreases in measures of sprint and jump performance, as well as thigh muscle force, while muscle damage markers have also been shown to be elevated 72 hours after a game when compared to prematch baseline levels. This suggests that players might not be fully recovered 72 hours after a game.

“Essentially what we have is a window of approximately 72 to 96 hours that needs to be respected from a recovery perspective at a minimum,” Sullivan said. “Even if you ‘optimize’ this window with the best recovery strategies, players may still not be at 100%. If you place extra stresses (such as traveling across time zones) on players within this window, which can negatively affect sleep, then clearly this will negatively affect recovery even more.”

For the biggest clubs in the world, playing every three and a half days is commonplace. It’s manageable because the rosters aren’t as top-heavy as they are in MLS; players called upon to fill in for starters in need of a rest aren’t earning a tiny fraction of the salaries of the players they’re replacing.

Many matches and limited rosters do not make for exceptional soccer. The MLS midseason slog is real, and it’s only going to get more real if something isn’t done. Add to that the fact that success means more matches — in U.S. Open Cup, in Leagues Cup, in the Champions League — and the need for a solution becomes clear.

It’s not as if MLS has done nothing. In the past handful of years, the salary cap has gone up nearly 50% and mechanisms like targeted allocation money, the U-22 initiative and young DP designations were introduced. For the most ambitious teams, though, it’s not enough.

“Perhaps there can be more allocation money given to the teams that have success, that are built the right way,” Albright said, noting that monies go to clubs that miss the playoffs in an effort to help them get back on track.

Thorrington agrees: “With the increase in games and the load, it’s not as though we were given different ways in which we could increase our depth.”

There is, of course, a balance. To the extent that MLS has survived and thrived, it’s due to financial constraints. Throwing all the rules and regulations away and saying teams can spend, say, between $6 million and $30 million however they want would lead to other issues. For example: How does one recruit a player like Lionel Messi, who will make north of that number by himself? Then again, Inter Miami played four teenagers in a 2-2 draw against D.C. United last weekend, and that’s not a good solution, either.

The league is always a story of balance. It’s time for that balance to shift.

One thing is certain: The games aren’t stopping. The Leagues Cup is around the corner, the rest of the regular season and the playoffs are fast approaching, there’s Concacaf Champions League, and then next season, and the season after that, which sees the addition of the newly refurbished Club World Cup as well as the Gold Cup, and so on, and so on.

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