D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen understands the challenges of constructing the MLS schedule, which must take into account international matches and summer tournaments, nonleague competition, venue availability and national TV demands. And this year, the regular season will end three weeks earlier than usual.
But Olsen also has a hard time accepting his team’s current timeline: a Sunday night match at home, two days to recover, prepare and travel for Wednesday’s game in Toronto, then repeat the process ahead of Saturday’s visit to Houston.
Shortly after the 1-0 victory over Kansas City on Sunday at Audi Field, Olsen bemoaned the league’s calendar as “ridiculous. Silly, silly scheduling.”
Three matches in eight days is not uncommon; United (7-3-2, 23 points) has already had two such stretches. This one, though, packs them into one fewer day and involves greater travel.
“I’m sympathetic to the league scheduling issues and how difficult it is,” Olsen said Tuesday. “I’ve seen the matrix they are trying to put together. It’s not easy.”
That said, “I do think it’s something that should never happen in the league — Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday.”
If both of this week’s opponents had identical slates, Olsen added, he would have less problem with it. Toronto and Houston are also in a three-game stretch, but both played this past Saturday instead of Sunday and have one trip instead of two.
It does not help that MLS organizations almost always fly commercial, leaving the travel party more susceptible to delays, cancellations and middle seats. The league’s cost-conscious policy forbids teams from scheduling more than four charters per season (two round trips). Even then, United management does not typically exercise the allowable charters.
Captain Wayne Rooney played down the travel demands.
“It’s two flights where you have to prepare and get ready for the game, which is part of your job,” he said. “It is what you have to do, so there is no complaints.”
The father of four also put it into perspective, saying, “You get used to flying with four kids, then any flight is easy without them.”
This is all new for Rooney, who enjoyed 15 of 20 matches at home upon arriving last summer. In the Premier League, where he spent his first 16 pro campaigns, the greatest distance this season was between Newcastle and Bournemouth (300 air miles).
With the heavy schedule, Olsen will make lineup changes from game to game. Though he does not reveal his starters in the days leading to a match, Olsen confirmed defensive midfielder Chris Durkin, a reserve the past two weekends, will get the call against Toronto before joining the U.S. under-20 national team late this week for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland.
Midfielders Ulises Segura and Zoltan Stieber also seem likely to start in one of these two matches. Rooney might require a breather at some point soon after playing all but one minute in the past six matches.
“You have to look at these as a package and how you set yourself up to succeed in both games,” Olsen said. “There has been a lot of discussion the past two days on how to go about it. We came up with a plan. Will it work? We’ll see.”
Things have worked for Olsen recently: nine points from the past four matches, including consecutive home victories, to remain even with Philadelphia atop the Eastern Conference with more than one-third of the season complete.
Midfielder Russell Canouse said, “Just to get three points [Sunday] and go into those two road games with confidence is a very good feeling.”
United has performed well on the road, posting a 3-1-1 record. At 3-1-2, New York City FC and Los Angeles FC are the only other teams in the 24-strong league with winning away records.
United’s only defeat came at Minnesota, a 1-0 result in which a D.C. disallowed goal should have stood, according to the referees’ association.
Toronto (5-4-1, 16 points) has taken three points from its past four matches since a 4-1-1 start. Last year at BMO Field, a month before Rooney’s debut, United squandered a 3-0 lead and settled for a 4-4 draw.
Houston will carry a 6-2-1 record into Wednesday’s home date against the Portland Timbers. United has won once in seven visits since BBVA Compass Stadium opened in 2012.
“We’ll need a bunch of bodies to get through this,” Olsen said of the D.C.-Ontario-Texas swing. “We’ll grind through it.”
D.C. United at Toronto FC
Where: BMO Field.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Live streams: FloSports, ESPN+. Both are subscription services. ESPN+ subject to blackout in D.C. area.
Records: United 7-3-2, 23 points; Toronto 5-4-1, 16 points.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Leonardo Jara, Frederic Brillant, Steve Birnbaum, Marquinhos Pedroso; MFs Paul Arriola, Russell Canouse, Chris Durkin, Luciano Acosta, Lucas Rodriguez; F Wayne Rooney.
TFC probable starters: GK Quentin Westberg; Ds Eriq Zavaleta, Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga; MFs Nick DeLeon, Marky Delgado, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Justin Morrow; Fs Alejandro Pozuelo, Jozy Altidore.