Playing on artificial turf, air travel, and games at altitude make Major League Soccer a unique and challenging league for away teams compared to the rest of the world. The sheer size of the country virtually ensures away sides will face long flights at some point in the season. Scheduling quirks in MLS include playing midweek games several times a year which forces teams to rotate players. All of this has helped the league develop a reputation for being difficult for foreign players and coaches to adjust to.
The upcoming games for Atlanta United will pose a new challenge for the team. The Five Stripes will venture out of the south to Seattle, Toronto, Montreal, and Salt Lake City in the next four weeks. While Atlanta can do things like practice on artificial turf, as they did the past two weeks in training sessions in Marietta and Flowery Branch to prepare for the game in Seattle, playing at altitude and the rigors of air travel are impossible to simulate and difficult to overcome.
Flying poses a challenge for players
Over the next four games United will travel over 11,000 miles by air and pass through Canadian and American customs twice. On top of that, Miguel Almiron will have traveled 11,000 miles himself between Atlanta, Asuncion, Sao Paulo, and Seattle over the last ten or so days. For his part, midfielder Carlos Carmona will log just over 12,000 miles in his time with the Chile National Team. In case you’re counting, that’s a lot of miles.
One aspect that makes MLS unique and sometimes forces managers hands in rotating players for away matches is air travel. Flying in MLS is exceptionally economical for a top level American sports league. As the Los Angeles Times reported last year, teams fly on commercial airliners and have a limited number of times they can purchase first class tickets on away trips.
As the article points out, this makes home field advantage that much more important in MLS and somewhat negates the parity that the league so painstakingly protects. In addition, teams traveling to and from Canada have to cross an international border, something Atlanta will do twice next month, and the potential for delays, interminable waits, and other complications that make modern air travel so glamorous that much more likely.
For Atlanta United the difficulty of air travel is intensified by the fact that the team does not have a lot of players with MLS experience. Team captain Michael Parkhurst, Tyrone Mears, Jeff Larentowicz, and keeper Alec Kann are four key players who have dealt first hand with the grind of travel in an MLS season. While the trip to Minnesota gave the team a taste of what it can expect on the road, the coming weeks will give the players new to the league a four course feast on away travel in the league.
A test for Tata
Away trips in MLS are a challenge for new managers as well and they have been cited as a reason foreign coaches have not succeeded in the league. Former Houston Dynamo coach Owen Coyle described how travel intensifies the struggle to adapt to MLS saying, “if we’re playing a derby, your derby is normally five miles away and stuff like that. Our derby [at Houston] was against FC Dallas, which is a one hour flight. So that was huge learning. It equates, if truth be told, to playing Champions League and Europa League every second week because of the travel. If we went to Vancouver, that’s over a five-hour flight. That’s well into Russia for a five-hour flight in Europe."
Whether or not Atlanta will succumb to the trials of MLS travel under Tata Martino is yet to be seen, so far the team is undefeated, but the away matches coming up will give a good idea of how his team will fare. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Martino discussed the travel schedule saying, “we know that is part of the league and that sometimes you play four away games in a row, but we have to try to keep focused now playing away from home without our fans behind us. We know that’s something you have to overcome in this league.”
Many teams fail to overcome playing away matches in MLS with home teams winning half of the games while drawing or losing around 25% of their matches. Successful teams with managers and players who have experience on the road struggle as well as newcomers to the league. For example, after winning MLS Cup in 2015 the Portland Timbers failed to win a road game the following season. This failure cost them a spot in the playoffs and hung over the team all season long.
This may seem daunting to a manager new to MLS, but Tata Martino has experience, extensive experience even, as manager in preparing his teams to travel long distances. While guiding Paraguay through CONEMBOL World Cup Qualification leading to the 2010 tournament, his team played across South America. In that competition he also faced another obstacle that travelling MLS teams deal with when Paraguay played in the high altitudes of Quito, Ecuador and La Paz, Bolivia.
In 2013 Martino’s Newell’s Old Boys played in the Copa Libertadores. Their group included clubs in Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, and Paraguay, which are quite long trips from Buenos Aires. Newell’s run in the tournament helped Tata solidify his reputation as his underdog team reached the semi-finals. As manager of Barcelona, he led his team in the Champions League against opponents in Holland, Scotland, England, and Italy which aren’t exactly a short bus trip from Spain.
While his experience is not quite the same as crossing several time zones for competitions, Tata’s time managing teams dealing with congested schedules and traveling far distances should enable him to prepare Atlanta United for road games.
These matches will be a test for United and will show how well the team has built its depth and to what extent the manager Tata Martino has been successful at implementing his tactics and strategy. This is especially true for players who haven’t started or made an 18 to this point in the season but may be asked to fill in for a resting starter. So far Martino has only made one change to his starting 11 when Carlos Carmona was suspended for the second game against Minnesota and Jeff Larentowicz stood in his place.
The choice of Larentowicz proved successful as United routed Minnesota. So far, Atlanta has scored a lot of goals, is playing exciting soccer, and has excellent chemistry. The link up play between the defenders and midfielders is an excellent example of that and the cohesiveness that the backline has shown to begin the season also shows the team’s spirit. In order to face the challenge of traveling, United will need every ounce of team spirit, some luck, and Tata Martino’s experience as manager to maintain its place in the table by the time the next game at Bobby Dodd Stadium rolls around at the end of April.