Union quiet for now, but season’s toughest stretch begins next week
From Sept. 15-29, the Union will play five games in 15 games across three time zones — including road trips to Seattle, Houston for the U.S. Open Cup final, and fellow playoff contender Columbus.
With no game to play this weekend, the Union are keeping things fairly quiet. But the team can see its most important — and arguably its most difficult — stretch of the season on the horizon.
From Sept. 15-29, the Union will play five games in 15 days across three time zones. Just two, Sept. 15 vs. Montreal and Sept. 23 vs. Kansas City, will be at home, and in between those will be a cross-country trek to a Wednesday game at Seattle.
It will be the third stretch of major fixture congestion this season.
They played five games in 14 days from May 26 to June 8, though three were at home — including an Open Cup game against second-division Richmond — and one was a bus trip to the New York Red Bulls.
They played six games in 19 days from July 7-25, with four at home, including an exhibition against Eintracht Frankfurt.
Now there's this. Three days after the Kansas City game, the Union will play the U.S. Open Cup final in Houston. Then they will go to Columbus, a must-win if the Union want to have any hope of overtaking the Crew for fourth place. That team will get a home game in the first round of the playoffs.
"We need everybody — we need every body — ready to go," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "A lot of people have already said we're in the playoffs, and that just couldn't be further from the truth. We have a ton of work to still do."
Curtin added that he is prioritizing the Montreal game, and not just because it's soonest. It will be a home game against the team one spot behind the fifth-place Union in the standings. He also said "there will be big changes for the Kansas City match" with the Open Cup final in mind.
All this is made worse by the longtime MLS rule requiring almost all air travel to be done by commercial flights instead of charters. Unlike the big four pro sports, in which teams have ample resources to always fly charters from city to city, MLS teams can fly only four one-way charter legs for league games per season, as a competitive balance measure. U.S. Open Cup games and Concacaf Champions League are exempted.
League headquarters is well aware that a few teams can pay for year-round charters, but many can't.
(It's also aware that giving up the rule might push the league's cheaper owners to sell.)
The Union will fly commercial to Seattle and back, and to Houston, but will charter back from the Open Cup final.
Notably, the team's front-office staff will fly charter to Houston the day of the game. This was revealed by Union chief business officer Tim McDermott in a tweet Tuesday evening.
How do the players cope with the burden of so many games and so much travel? Fafa Picault said it's best to get as much rest as possible.
"My one job is to play soccer and to do it to the best of my ability," he said. "Obviously, the West Coast trips are rough because of the travel. And of course, it's a turf field in Seattle — that's probably a bigger concern than the travel itself. But you do your job as a professional and get ready for the small days of recovery."