There are stretches for every team in Major League Soccer where the club plays a number of games in a short period of time.
Columbus Crew SC is in the midst of series of three games in eight days. Last Saturday, the Black & Gold defeated the New England Revolution 2-0 at MAPRE Stadium and now welcome Toronto FC to Columbus on Wednesday night. By this upcoming Saturday, Crew SC will be in Montreal to take on the Impact.
That’s not the easiest schedule.
For Columbus, these congested periods typically have not gone well, especially the middle match that is the focus of the team right now. Since Gregg Berhalter took over ahead of the 2014 season, the Black & Gold are 1-4-2 in the mid-week game of these stretches with the lone win coming in mid-2015 at the Chicago Fire.
So what makes the second match in a three- or four-day stretch so difficult?
“I don’t know,” Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter answered this week. “I don’t know if I generalize and say the mid-week game is a tough game to win. One team is winning the game, right?”
While Berhalter doesn’t have one thing to to point to as a reason for Columbus’ struggles during match congestion, it has been a focus. The staff realizes the team hasn’t been good in back-to-back games or in short weeks in recent years and has adjusted training to hopefully help prepare the players to perform better.
Part of that is creating more quality depth, which Berhalter and his staff believe they did this offseason. That depth has already been tested some this season, but will face its biggest challenge during this week.
Squad rotation has become the norm in MLS during these busy weeks in order to keep players fresh. But why do staffs worry about fatigue with more than one game per week? After all, high school players face multiple game weeks and club teams often face back-to-back match days in tournaments. College players often face similar stretches.
According to winger Ethan Finlay, it has to do with the step up in level an the aging of some of the players.
“It’s the physicality of it, plain and simple,” he explained. “When you’re young, you can run for as long as you need to, as long as the whistle doesn’t blow and when it does, you just end up stopping.
“I didn’t come off very often when I played in college. But it’s the physicality of the game over 90 minutes. It’s the mental and physical focus that you have to have throughout the game. Because I think the little things at this level are what will kill you.”
There’s also the obvious fact that at these lower levels, teams aren’t limited to just three substitutions. Also, players can sub out of a game with the freedom to return to the match.
This may not seem like much, but the opportunity to come out for even a few minutes can help can rejuvenate a player.
“It’s huge,” Finlay said. “That’s the mental (side), being able to let your guard down. Not on the field. I could literally just take a breather, whether it’s five minutes or not.”
A five-minute break at points in a game where a player like Finlay doesn’t have to think about making runs or where his man is going, in addition to a chance to catch his breath is rather beneficial, especially on already tired legs and minds.
The change in level also brings about differences in training. MLS teams spend more time on the little things and the work rate is higher, especially for Crew SC, a team that is very demanding of its players.
“We are a team that trains very hard for this reason,” Finlay said. “Hearing other guys that have come from other teams and I’ve talked to guys from around the league, our training sessions and what we do on and off the field is probably one of the most, if not the most, rigorous schedule in intensity.”
In matches, the Black & Gold have some of the higher distances covered in MLS. This is specifically true of the wingers and fullbacks, positions Berhalter has mentioned as possible rotation candidates this week.
“We know that guys are going to have to step up,” Berhalter said of his depth players. “It makes a big difference and we’re going to need that.
“We’ll make some adjustments based on getting fresh guys on the field, how we think we can win the game and then we’ll prepare for the next game.”
The good news for Crew SC in Wednesday’s match with Toronto is there was no travel between this contest and the last. TFC meanwhile were in Seattle over the weekend and now come to Columbus, which could be an advantage.
Although the record doesn’t reflect it, Crew SC are confident heading into the mid-week match. Despite the short rest, the group believes it has figured out how to manage these weeks to maximize the results.
“It can be done. It certainly can be done,” Berhalter said. “If you look at teams that are playing Champions League, if you look at Bayern Munich, they’re playing every three days. Barcelona, every three days. It can be done. It’s proper training loads, rest, recovery and nutrition, sleep, everything you can name.”