As the kids would say MLS is drunk. In an effort to still play 34 games but also have playoffs and a Soccer Bowl before winter descends on the northern reaches of North America and ruins the championship game, the league has compressed the schedule. Those 34 matches are now played in 7 months or about 31 weeks rather than the 35ish weeks it had been taking. Throw in a few FIFA dates and a two week break for the Gold Cup and it’s more like 25 or 27 weeks.
The result has been more mid-week games and teams playing more in international breaks. During those matches managers are more prone to rest their star players or may be missing them completely if they are with their national teams. Most of the soccer being played when this happens is bad and with more of these breaks there is more bad soccer in MLS now. I can’t in anyway quantify bad soccer, but as someone who follows Everton I know bad linups and games when I see them.
In general, this is what a decent team in MLS (so, not the Rapids) runs as their first choice XI:
Here’s what happens when a team is very bad (like the Rapids) or has to play during an international break or rotates because sitting on an airplane and sleeping in a hotel is very bad for soccer players.
In sum, when you drill down deeper into the depth of most squads it goes something like this - roster spots 1-8: very solid; 9-11: either young and inexperienced, rotation fodder that’s not that good anyway, or on the team because they don’t take up an international slot; 11-15: Harry Shipp, assortment of college graduates, good players prone to injury; 16-30: academy guys who are getting their shot but probably won’t pan out, guys who are a step above USL but way below MLS level, Corben Bone. Teams are now relying more on those 9-30 guys and it isn’t pretty.
In real terms what it looks like is when DC United thought they should do this on the road against Toronto a few weeks ago:
Your #DCU starting XI vs @torontofc! pic.twitter.com/i8CMiKbxFt— D.C. United (@dcunited) May 15, 2019
Their best players who help them win games - Wayne Rooney, Paul Arriola, Lucho Acosta, and Lucas Rodriguez - were not hurt; why the four of them were on the bench when there are only 3 subs in a game is also a great question for tactical master Ben Olsen, but he was clearly giving them rest as DCU played six games in 17 days. This lineup says, “let’s try not to lose” - they did that and took a 0-0 draw thanks to Bill Hamid making 12 saves in the game. 12 saves. Incidentally in the next game at Houston they gave up a 1-0 lead and lost 2-1, so resting the starters didn’t even lead to them winning the next match.
When teams do have injuries, as Sporting Kansas City did to start the year, the results are similarly bad with things like this happening:
The XI.#SportingRetro // #SKCvATL pic.twitter.com/8Hd156aJmy— Sporting KC (@SportingKC) May 5, 2019
That’s a backup center back pairing with a failed DP in central midfield, second choice players at central mid and left wing with only four position players on the bench. The result was bad for SKC - they were completely outmatched against a struggling Atlanta United team and ended up being embarrassed at home.
Then there’s just what happens when your team is tired. Here’s a largely first choice side picked by Frank de Boer as Atlanta played their 9th game in 41 days.
#ATLUTD’s Starting XI vs @realsaltlake pic.twitter.com/hRWBA2Xlee— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) May 25, 2019
We all know how that one went.
The tables have turned!
This is the table right now.
Here’s the East (yes, Philly is actually in 1st)
And the West:
Don’t believe your eyes, those numbers and rankings are totally wrong. There’s one good team in MLS - the Los Angeles Football Club... unless Carlos Vela goes down, then they’re about the same as the New England Revolution and might as well have Juan Agudelo at striker. Philly is in 1st in the East but are held together by budget players, Alejandro Bedoya, academy players, and Jim Curtin’s iron will; they’ll be in 5th by the end of the season. The league is in reality an 11 way tie for second between Philly, Atlanta, NYCFC, NYRB, Portland**, Zlatan, Houston, Seattle, DC, San Jose, and FC Dallas. The tie for 7th is between Minnesota, Montreal, SKC, Chicago, Toronto, and RSL. Everyone else is trash or hurt or both or managed by Caleb Porter or Bruce Arena.
It seemed like parity was falling away last year as teams like Atlanta, Seattle, SKC, and LAFC began leveraging things like planning and having good ideas about bringing in good players and were poised to pull away from the league while everyone else tried to figure things out. Rather than them doing that, except for LAFC, the schedule is taking its toll across the league and parity is now being achieved not through the salary control mechanisms, but through pure attrition and exhaustion at the expense of the gains the league made in terms of quality over the past few seasons.
Obviously this is a problem of the league’s own making. Squads in MLS simply are prohibited by the rules that the owners impose on themselves from having good depth. As a result, the talent drops off of a cliff when first team players aren’t available. Not that every team in MLS could do this, but when depth is needed in the leagues MLS aspires to be, the situation is something along the lines of Sergio Aguero being unavailable so Jesus steps in for him. In MLS if Raul Ruidiaz isn’t around, the Sounders have to depend on Will Bruin who is surely not Jesus.
This is really too bad for the league since MLS had been going in a really positive direction. The league had jumped up from “oh the Fire won MLS Cup in their first year” to “bad” to “hard to watch” to “getting better” to “so bad that it’s good actually” and may have been poised to make a jump to - “OK” soon. Unless the roster rules change to bring in more talented players to accommodate the compressed schedule, the league would have taken a step back thanks to not thinking about how the rosters and quality of its product would be impacted because of so many games played in such a short time.
**Any team with Diego Valeri and 16 home games in the next 20 games is good actually.
What it means for Atlanta United
Outside of one really elite team the league is wide open. The rest of MLS is clearly also struggling with the schedule congestion and especially in the East no club has been able to pull away from the pack. Atlanta will have a really tough schedule in the next 19 games and will face 13 teams who are currently in the playoff spots. The US Open Cup will open during the international break, so rest isn’t necessarily assured.
When healthy, Atlanta has solid depth for an MLS team. Justin Meram, Tito Villalba, Jeff Larentowicz, Brek Shea, Dion Pereira and Michael Parkhurst are solid players who could start for most MLS teams week in and week out. Having them start to or sub into a game depending on the situation is a huge advantage and even with the compressed schedule, the team should be able to call on its depth when needed.
This may also be a case where Frank de Boer’s tactics give the team an advantage. Atlanta hasn’t been scoring, that seems to be changing, but the lower risks that de Boer is having the team take means that when teams rotate the strikers who were good in USL last year or who are Will Bruin just won’t be as difficult to defend. Ezequiel Barco will be back in a few weeks from the U-20 World Cup and will add a spark to the team and perhaps if Pity keeps making impossible passes the attack will really come alive. At least it seems clear that Atlanta will make the playoffs as the struggles the team had to start the year through March and April have been sorted out and Atlanta have emerged as contenders in the East. Frank de Boer has settled on his tactics and while he might tweak somethings here or there, the more defensive and cautious philosophy is the one it looks like the team will go with in 2019.
As much as teams across the league have struggled with the packed schedule,the tougher teams Atlanta will face for the second half of the year will test the approach more than the teams lower in the table that the Five Stripes have put together this nice run of results against. If the attack continues to show the form it has in the last two games when Ezequiel Barco comes back, Atlanta is in good position to win the East and possibly take the Supporters’ Shield if LAFC falters, but they’ll have to win against the best teams in the league to do it.