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How the CONCACAF Champions League benefits the Union

Even though the Union are not competing in the CONCACAF Champions League, is it possible for the Union to still reap benefits from the competition?

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Every year all the champions from their respective country get into a steel cage and have a slugfest to decide who the best club team in CONCACAF is. The ultimate prize? Right to call themselves CONCACAF's best club and the opportunity to compete in the FIFA Club World Cup.

Now I'm not going to get into analyzing the Champions League combatants themselves (the only shot MLS has is Sporting Kansas City, but it's a long shot), instead I will discuss how the Champions League will influence the remaining fixtures of the Union's season.

This year four of the five MLS participants in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) are in the Eastern Conference. The teams are as follows: MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City, Supporter Shield winners New York Red Bulls, U.S. Open Cup winners D.C. United, and Voyageurs Cup winners Montreal Impact. What does this mean exactly? All of those teams will play four extra games in the CCL on top of their remaining MLS league games. All of these teams have currently played less games than the Union (SKC 20 GP, NYRB 20 GP, DCU 19 GP, and MON 19 GP). While it is typically a good thing to have a game or two in hand, it may work against these teams in this situation.

Remember how sluggish the Union looked in Chicago playing their third game in eight days? Well, the back half of these teams' schedules will not only be logged with extra MLS games but CCL games as well. This is definitely going to take a toll on the performance of the participants who will have extra travel and not just in the U.S., but to Central America and the Caribbean as well (MLS teams cannot be grouped with Liga MX sides, so they will not travel to Mexico for the Group Stage of the CCL). Let's take a look at the schedules for each of the teams:

*NOTE* Not ALL MLS games during the length of the CCL Group Stage are in the tables above, only the one's surrounding the CCL games.

Sporting Kansas City

Date

Opponent

Competition

8/16

vs Toronto FC

MLS

8/19

@ Real Esteli (NIC)

CCL

8/23

vs DC United

MLS

9/18

vs Saprissa (CRC)

CCL

9/23

vs Real Esteli (NIC)

CCL

9/26

vs New England

MLS

10/18

vs Philadelphia

MLS

10/23

@ Saprissa (CRC)

CCL

10/26

vs NYRB

MLS

If winning the MLS Cup last year was enough to think Sporting Kansas City was blessed by the MLS Gods, then you need to look at this schedule. I guarantee that manager Peter Vermes did a little jig when he looked at this schedule as his side will be on easy street. Sporting has the depth to compete in both MLS and CCL and be fairly successful on both fronts.

On only two occurrences do Sporting travel to Central America and return to MLS play, but, again thanks to the MLS Gods, they return to play at home. In August their three games in eight days is a trip to Nicaragua bookended by two home games (against pretty hefty Eastern opponents). In September they're given a week off in MLS to have two CCL games in 5 days, BOTH AT HOME! Remarkable to me that Sporting avoided multiple tough trips, a club that certainly doesn't need the break for a number of reasons.

Even the Union can't catch a break against Sporting as they will play them at Sporting Park on the front end of a three game in eight days stretch instead of catching a tired team having just gotten back from Costa Rica. By October 18th, however, Sporting may have wrapped up a playoff spot and may be looking past the Union to Saprissa as the Costa Rican powerhouse will be a tough match for Sporting. Certainly the group in CCL will come down to that October 23rd match between Sporting and Saprissa.

New York Red Bulls

Date

Opponent

Competition

8/23

vs Montreal

MLS

8/26

vs FAS (ELS)

CCL

8/31

@ DC United

MLS

9/13

@ Philadelphia

MLS

9/17

@ Montreal

CCL

9/20

vs Seattle

MLS

9/24

@ FAS (ELS)

CCL

9/28

@ LA Galaxy

MLS

10/19

vs Columbus

MLS

10/22

vs Montreal

CCL

10/26

@ Sporting Kansas City

MLS

I have one word for New York's schedule in the CCL this year: BRUTAL. Look at that September! LOOK AT IT! I didn't even show you the two games on September 6th and 10th in MLS (both at home) that kicks off New York's worst month ever. I'll go into detail after glossing through August and October really quick.

New York got off with a break though, despite the schedule, by being grouped with Montreal (a measly 376 miles away compared to the 3,339 mile trip to El Salvador they'll have). Through August their three games in nine days only include a trip to DC while hosting El Salvador's FAS. In October, they have a similar fate, hosting Columbus and Montreal before traveling to Sporting. Not exactly a tough travel schedule.

But boy oh boy do they make up for it in September! After ringing in September with a week off right before Labor Day, New York goes to work with seven games in 22 days, with a home match against current Supporters Shield favorites Seattle Sounders squeezed in between trips to Philadelphia and Montreal and then El Salvador and Los Angeles. So their September looks like this NY -> PHI -> MON -> NY -> ELS -> LA. All in 22 days. Now that's roughly 9,000 miles of travel (estimating on Google maps) in that time frame. In between soccer matches. Good luck, New York.

DC United

Date

Opponent

Competition

8/17

vs Columbus

MLS

8/20

vs Waterhouse (JAM)

CCL

8/23

@ Sporting Kansas City

MLS

9/16

@ Waterhouse (JAM)

CCL

9/20

@ Chicago

MLS

9/24

vs Tauro (PAN)

CCL

9/27

vs Philadelphia

MLS

10/18

vs Chicago

MLS

10/21

@ Tauro (PAN)

CCL

10/25

@ Montreal

MLS

DC United's schedule leans more in the direction of New York's. It is nowhere near the 9,000 mile September Club that the Red Bulls are looking at, but it certainly has its rough patches. United doesn't have the luxury of waltzing to Stade Saputo like New York as have trips to Jamaica and Panama in their fortunes.

In August, D.C.'s first CCL experience in five years will be hosting Jamaican champions Waterhouse, which will be sandwiched between MLS fixtures against Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City. In October, their schedule is a little tricky with a trip to Panama in the middle of two MLS matches, but neither opponent should offer much opposition to DC United by that point of the season.

All that said, September may set itself up as a month to be forgotten for DC United. With four games in 11 days, Ben Olson's side may be looking to rest players by the end of that stretch as the 11th day features a match against our beloved Union. With a match-up against Tauro of Panama 3threedays prior (albeit no travel) the Union may be sneaking up on a tired United team. If United takes the CCL seriously, their depth will be tested, and quite frankly the Union need to take advantage of picking up points from tired teams.

Montreal Impact

Date

Opponent

Competition

8/2

vs Toronto FC

MLS

8/5

vs FAS (ELS)

CCL

8/9

@ Philadelphia

MLS

8/16

vs Chicago

MLS

8/20

@ FAS (ELS)

CCL

8/23

@ NYRB

MLS

9/13

@ New England

MLS

9/17

vs NYRB

CCL

9/20

vs San Jose

MLS

10/18

@ Toronto

MLS

10/22

@ NYRB

CCL

10/25

vs D.C.   United

MLS

Now, Montreal is not going to be in the MLS Playoff hunt, barring a huge turnaround. The CCL being in their future doesn't bode well for the Canadian Champions. They've got their schedule broken into four sections and their August is taxing, but not nearly on New York's level.

They open their campaign by playing two sets of three games in eight days, ultimately equaling six games in 21 days, but with a week off in the middle following a trip home from PPL Park to host Chicago. The Union catch Montreal on the end of the first set of those games and being at home against Eastern Conference bottom feeders, the Union should pick up all three points.

As for the rest of Montreal's schedule, a set of three games in eight days in September features almost no travel aside from strolling down to Foxboro. In October, it gets a little heavier as they travel to Toronto AND New York before hosting D.C. United. What a trip! I'm sure New York fans should feel outraged at this as for once they've gotten the short end of the stick.

How has the CCL affected other MLS teams in the past?

I looked into how travel has phased other teams that have participated in the CCL before. In the current format for the CCL (only two previous editions) the results have been mixed. So below is the records of the teams in MLS play in games surrounding CCL fixtures.

2012-13

Team

GP

W-D-L

GF

GA

GD

Pts

LA Galaxy

6

5-1-0

13

5

8

16

Seattle

8

4-2-2

18

9

9

14

Houston

7

1-3-3

9

13

-4

6

RSL

6

2-2-2

5

5

0

8

As you can see, teams with depth really get along quite fine. LA and Seattle maintained their crushing forms. The Galaxy had one of the easiest travel schedules and traveled on the road just twice in MLS during CCL fixtures from Puerto Rico to Colorado and from San Jose to El Salvador. Seattle went undefeated in CCL play in 2012, but struggled with travelling, as expected coming from the Pacific Northwest to places like Trindad and Tobago and Honduras. Towards the end of their season Seattle was struggling to maintain form.

As for Houston and Real Salt Lake, their small market franchise business plans really hindered them in MLS play. Houston lost three of their three matches on the last game of CCL stretches (the three games in eight days stretches that are common during CCL play, I'm going to refer to them as "CCL stretches") and their only win came after a two week break. Real Salt Lake was the only MLS team to not make it out of the group stage in this CCL and were just as average in MLS play. In their two CCL stretches they struggled to cope with form and dropped points in three of four in those games (1-1-2).

2013-14

Team

GP

W-D-L

GF

GA

GD

Pts

LA Galaxy

7

2-4-1

9

7

2

10

San Jose

8

3-3-2

8

9

-1

12

Houston

7

3-2-2

12

12

0

11

Sporting

7

5-0-2

12

7

5

15

2013 Fared much better for the MLS in CCL play and across the board teams were able to balance MLS games between CCL fixtures. The team who succeeded the most, Sporting Kansas City, benefited from depth and stellar form. Sporting strolled through MLS and CCL competition, but they still struggled with MLS games after traveling, losing twice in games just before traveling to Central America.

The other three teams maintained average form, but Houston improved from their horrid 2012 MLS performance during CCL fixtures. Even with that, Houston had some strange results and had a New York-esque seven games in 22 days in August and September and struggled traveling (they got demolished by Montreal after a trip to Trinidad and Tobago). Los Angeles had experience in CCL but it didn't show, dropping points in four games out of seven. They had five games in 15 days in one stretch. On the plus side, the Galaxy still managed to only lose just once. San Jose had picked up form towards the end of the season, but struggled to adjust to an MLS schedule once the CCL picked up. A travel heavy beginning of CCL play was adjusted to as San Jose rounded off a successful group stage.

Is all this good?

Yes, very much so. Every team that has participated in CCL from MLS has dropped points in league games and this year will be no different. The two previous CCL editions had teams far better prepared for CCL play. The Galaxy, Seattle, and Sporting have very good depth and it showed in their performances. Experience played a factor in Houston's second run and Real Salt Lake was able to cope despite having a down year. San Jose adjusted to have a pretty good record, but still struggled with travel.

The other benefit is the Union play each of the Eastern Conference teams once, which means they'll directly cross paths with the tired teams instead of hoping for results. It may be the Union's destiny to take this playoff spot and fend off the tired teams. They might be playing less games, but the rest will absolutely help them maximize the good results in their remaining matches.