The Sons of Ben hung a set of banners over the River End’s railings Saturday night that asked the Union a question.
“DO WE WANT TO BE A GOOD TEAM, OR DO WE WANT TO BE DOOPIN’ GREAT?” the banners read.
The Union are about to play their three final road games of the season, all in a span of eight days: at the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, at the San Jose Earthquakes on Sept. 25 and at the Columbus Crew on Sept. 29.
Ideally, the players and coaches would not set foot in Chester from when they head north this weekend until Oct. 1. There would be a charter flight straight from Newark to San Jose on Sunday night, and a charter flight from San Jose (whose airport is across the street from Avaya Stadium) to Columbus after the game out west. The Union would stay on the road for the duration, maximizing their training and rest during a crucial stretch.
As of now, none of that will happen. Several sources said that the team will come home Sunday night, then will fly to San Jose on Monday, fly home the day after the game there, then fly from Philadelphia to Columbus two days later — and all the travel will be commercial.
Those same sources — all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity — confirmed that the Union have not used any of the four charter-flight legs each MLS team is allowed each season.
After this article was first published, the Union offered a statement from sporting director Ernst Tanner.
“We checked both options, and are very comfortable with our commercial travel plans next week,” Tanner said. “Between direct flights and the opportunity to stay overnight in San Jose after the game, we are able to fully maximize our regeneration opportunities. The rengeneration time in San Jose is the most critical part of the road trip for the team to be fully rested and ready to compete in three games in eight days.”
The strict limit on charter flights is a sore spot for the MLS Players Association, which hopes to change the rule — and ideally abolish it — in CBA negotiations this winter. Locker rooms across the league are fed up with congested airports, shoebox-sized seats, and of course the whims of Mother Nature in the summer.
Philadelphia, Vancouver, Montreal and Orlando are among the clubs that have faced major issues this year. Union manager Jim Curtin has repeatedly called on MLS owners (including his own) to raise the limit, as has D.C. United counterpart Ben Olsen.
“They can say charter flights, the money that goes into that is maybe taken out of the salary-cap money, but I think that’s BS,” he told Pro Soccer USA after the team got home. “I think eventually every flight in this league should be a charter if you want to be an elite league."
Bedoya took to Twitter a few hours after this article was published with a renewed call for more charters.
But if the limit is bad (which it is, as even MLS commissioner Don Garber has acknowledged), for a team to not go to the limit is even worse. Especially when that team is on the verge of clinching only the second home playoff game in team history.
Charter flights are not cheap. They cost around $150,000 per one-way leg. Earlier this year, The Athletic surveyed teams leaguewide to ask how many of them used the full allotment of four flights in 2018. Only 16 teams responded, and only four said yes.
Yet the top MLS teams are willing to spend the money to go all in to win. Look no further than Los Angeles FC, one of the league’s standard-bearers. After playing in Orlando on Sept. 7, the team flew to Philadelphia the next day and stayed here all week instead of flying home and then back east.
A decision like that matters in the locker room as much as it does on the field. It shows that ownership is as driven to win as players, coaches and front-office staff. For all the improvements the Union have made this year, you can be sure the lack of using charter flights sends a message to players — and not just those on the current squad. Potential signees and their agents will find out, too.
This moment for the Union has even higher stakes than usual. They are within touching distance of clinching the right to host not just one home playoff game, but two. Finishing second in the Eastern Conference would earn that prize. Either Atlanta United or New York City FC would have to come to Chester for the conference semifinals, instead of the Union having to go to them.
It seems fair to think that hosting two playoff games would make the Union enough money to cover the cost of charter flights and hotel rooms for the coming road trip. If you think the sellout crowds for the team’s last three home contests have been impressive, imagine what the buzz would be for a playoff showdown against New York or Atlanta under the lights in October.
The decision to spend has to be made by the team’s owners. You’d figure they’d want to go all in right now, and do everything they can to help their team earn second place. But by all accounts, it isn’t happening yet.
I ran into Sugarman on the way out of the press box Saturday night, while he was celebrating the impressive 1-1 tie against LAFC with some fans. I asked him about charter flights and the coming trip. He said the same things that I’d heard elsewhere in previous days. Sugarman also acknowledged that the overall subject is worth attention at the bargaining table.
With all due respect, it’s also worth attention right now. The Union’s players, coaches and front office have stepped up repeatedly to make this season the best in team history. It’s time for Sugarman and his fellow owners to step up again, too.