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Why you shouldn’t worry about Atlanta United’s late-season fixture congestion

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September’s a busy month for everyone.

The recent announcement of the rescheduled dates for the LA Galaxy and Minnesota United home games, along with the push of the FC Dallas game back a day resulted in a very busy 24-day stretch for the Five Stripes. In that period (from September 10 until October 3) they will be playing 8 games on an average rest of 4.75 days (math nerds will note that 24/8=3; I will explain later on!). That’s quite a task, to say the least, especially in a league where depth is at a premium. It’s enough to make Tata Martino feel he’s Jose Mourinho. Without the whining, though.

There are several reasons for this. The big issue for Atlanta United is of course the delayed construction of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But there are also two FIFA international breaks during the second half of the MLS season, as well as an extended break for the CONCACAF Gold Cup (which MLS has not done in the past).

Obviously, those three breaks don’t affect just Atlanta; they affect the entire league. And that’s where things begin to look rather better for the team than they otherwise might. And in fact the first problem—stadium delays—in part works to offset the schedule compression forced by the breaks. The most obvious aspect of this is that of those 8 games, 7 are at home. That means that travel issues do not add to the fatigue that is going to set in. The one road game in that stretch is the second to last game, so it doesn’t really break up the home stand.

Conversely, it means that our opponents do have to travel. But a deeper review of the September schedule indicates that their problems extend beyond just the travel to Atlanta. Of those 8 games, four are midweek games. Which raises the question: what are those teams doing on the weekends around those midweek games? Well, obviously, the answer is, they have games. It gets better from there, though. Of the four games played on weekends, one is the first game, which follows immediately after a FIFA break, and of the other three, it turns out that two of our opponents have midweek games of their own leading up those games. And the last weekend opponent doesn’t exactly have it so good either.

Take a look at this table:

Yellow=away game

It’s quite busy, I grant. But it’s very telling. First, during the entire 8-game schedule, we only face one opponent (Orlando City) that has a full week of rest ahead of and after their game with Atlanta; that’s the last weekend opponent I mentioned above. But note that both of Orlando’s games around the Atlanta game are also road games. Even better, we catch Orlando in the fourth game of a 5-game road stretch, during which they even play during the August 28-September 5 FIFA break.

The only other team that comes close to a full week’s rest is FC Dallas, the first game on the list. But their initial rest is shorter than Atlanta’s, because like Orlando they play during the FIFA break whereas Atlanta does not. Their subsequent break is a slightly abbreviated 6-day week. That’s also why our average rest is better than 3 days; we get a long break to start the stretch, although several of our key players will of course not get that luxury. Average rest after the stretch starts is only 3.29 days.

But everyone else we play gets no rest before or after their game. Moreover, looking at their opponents, most of those games, given current form, are not cake walks. And several of those games are away, which means that their true rest is even less than the number shown above, which is simply the difference between game dates.

There are two other complications to the schedule. First is the 9/20 game against LA. That is the same day as the US Open Cup final, so if either or both teams are involved, the game will have to be rescheduled again. The second is that the 10/3 expansion derby is during the last FIFA break, so we will be missing some players (although Minnesota will likely be short as well).

The club is of course quite aware of the scheduling issues, and is planning around them. On last week’s episode of “Off the Woodwork”, 92.9 The Game’s soccer podcast, Kyle Tait interviewed club president Darren Eales and specifically asked about this problem. Here’s how he replied:

“…This is part of the issue, isn’t it, of an expansion team. First of all, we’ve got to get used to playing in MLS, a lot of our players aren’t used to playing in MLS. A lot of them haven’t played in the league. But also, you know, because of the issues we’ve had with the stadium, you know, we have to handle it now. But it’s one of those things where it’s going to be different, obviously, in future years with a much more balanced schedule, but, you know, we are where we are and we have to take some of what can be perceived as a negative and turn it into a positive.

You know, we do know that come the last ten games of the season we’ll have eight of them at home. So we can be there or thereabouts, you know, that’s a good schedule for us to find and make the most of our home advantage to help carry us to the playoffs. But we’ve also got, you know, that issue, as you’ve pointed out Kyle, of fitting in so many games in a short space of time.

But we do have August where we’re going to have, unlike the other teams, we have almost like a mini-break of two weeks where we won’t have a game, so we’ll be treating it almost like two seasons and we’ll be trying use that a little bit like you have a winter break in the Bundesliga, or, you know, some of the European leagues. I think we’ll look at how we periodize the players over the season, and try to make advantage of that downtime to hopefully keep our players as fresh as we can for that final stretch.”

The entire podcast can be heard here. The relevant quote starts at 16:09. Note that 15-day break in the table above; that’s exactly what Eales is referring to in talking about a mini-break, and he clearly means to exploit it as much as possible. Evidently, there’s a plan in place.

So, maybe it won’t be quite as bad as it looks at first sight. However, it also raises a question of how we as fans should behave during the games. Should we be our normal excessively loud selves, or should we perhaps use a few lullabies as chants to help our opponents get the rest they will clearly need?