If you’re a Real Salt Lake follower and happen to track the day-to-day lives of players on social media, you’ll more than likely stumble upon updates on the team’s travel days as you’re scrolling down on your phone.
But you couldn’t find a thing Thursday morning.
Like any other traveler, RSL’s contingent of roughly 30 players, coaches and staffers were at Salt Lake City International Airport around 7 a.m., like everyone else a bit bleary-eyed, but staring a seven-hour travel day directly in the face. That’s what it takes for RSL to get to Columbus, Ohio, where on Saturday evening, the club will face the Crew as it does once a season.
There are no direct commercial flights to central Ohio from Salt Lake City, so instead of what would normally be a three-hour direct charter flight, it’s an all-day excursion to get to the Midwest. RSL left Utah at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, connected in Minneapolis, and again waited for another flight to get to Columbus.
In 2018, despite all the barriers Major League Soccer has busted down, despite the worldwide talent it has continued to lure, players and staff alike are still waiting to board through various zones on commercial airlines like everyone else.
MLS is the only professional sports league in the U.S. that has to deal with these scenarios on a weekly basis, and as pressure mounts on the league and owners to fix the issue in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, it has remained a source of frustration for players and coaches for decades.
REAL SALT LAKE AT COLUMBUS CREW
At Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Kickoff • Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT
TV • KMYU
Radio • 700 AM
Records • RSL 7-7-2, Columbus 7-5-6
Last meeting • 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium (July 29, 2017)
About Columbus • Star goalkeeper Zack Steffen will miss the match against RSL after undergoing a knee procedure this week. .. Former L.A. Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes is tied for third in the league in goals scored with 10 in his first season in Columbus. ... The Crew have allowed the second-least amount of goals in the Eastern Conference so far this year with 18.
About RSL • Center back Justen Glad said this week he felt better after leaving last week’s 1-1 draw with San Jose with blurry vision. .... Despite being fourth in the West right now, RSL is tied for the worst goal-differential in the league with minus-10. ... So far RSL is 1-6-1 on the road this season ... In East Coast road trips this year, RSL has conceded 14 goals in four matches.
“That’s definitely one of the complaints that I have at 20-something years in this league, that we don’t have team planes,” said RSL coach Mike Petke. “I know many owners would love to do it, but for some reason, we don’t. But we have to deal with it. A lot of teams have to deal with it, so it’s not a disadvantage for us. It’s a disadvantage for the entire league as far as I’m concerned.”
As MLS continues to balloon — there are currently 23 franchises with three more in Cincinnati, Nashville and Miami to soon join the fold — it will become increasingly difficult for teams to find direct flights. Will there ever be directs from San Jose to Nashville? Or Orlando to Vancouver?
Such daunting travel days can have direct impacts on performances, even if a team is flying in one or two days before the match kicks off. In a story by The Los Angeles Times in 2016, former U.S. men’s national team and L.A. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said the lack of charter planes is one of the reasons road teams struggle so mightily in MLS. Now at the halfway point of 2018, 10 clubs have one or less road wins so far this season.
“It definitely changes things,” said RSL center back Justen Glad of long travel days in MLS. “You’ve got to get your body right, you’ve got to do the extra stuff, get a massage, then do all the little things and then even then you’re still a little fatigued. But that’s just part of the game. Teams have to deal with that when they come here.”
There are a number of ownership groups in the league ready to take the next step, to make the 17 road trips a year charter-based or even use a team-specific plane. But there is pushback by some, too, which will eventually lead to another crossroad ahead of the next CBA talks.
As currently mandated by the league, clubs are allowed to utilize only four charter flights per season, for which they’re reimbursed for by the league. RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen has long been a proponent of RSL having its own team plane, and with the addition of Utah Royals FC this year, Hansen would like to find a way to charter his teams to as many away games as possible.
Because anyone who has endured brutal travel days with multiple connecting flights understands how draining it can be.
RSL, like many teams, has tried to combat that by getting in two days early before trips to the East Coast, but as Petke noted, professional athletes are forced to sit for hours on end, de-plane, sit again, board another flight, sit once more and eventually make it to the team hotel and start the acclimation process.
“You’d think by now there’d be a system in place to accommodate the players to get to certain cities like Columbus,” said RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who is in his 19th season in MLS. “It is tiring and it is frustrating. … There’s time to adjust, but it is a long day for the players.”
Standing outside RSL’s new $78 million soccer complex in Herriman, Rimando points to the massive sprawl as he explains the dichotomy of where the league is. There have been so many delays and being stranded for one reason or another in his two decades in MLS that it’s hard to recall which instance is most memorable.
“You can’t plan the weather or malfunctions to planes and stuff, you’ve just got to deal with it,” Rimando said. “You’d think in this age, with facilities like this and how much money is going into the league, that players going A-to-B would be easier sorted out.”
Will the league and owners alike be willing to pony up? Each season more money is being poured into resources for clubs to sign higher-quality players at much higher prices than ever before. It’s been estimated that it would cost the league and owners roughly $20 million or more per year to adopt the changes many seek.
Elliot Fall, RSL’s assistant general manager, was once a team administrator. Fall estimates that while an all-charter method would be a plus, the give-and-take in cost would be tricky league-wide. Clubs would save more on fewer hotel rooms, less per diem expenses, fewer meals, but he estimates charter flight costs would likely triple compared to what MLS teams are paying commercially.
“It’s certainly a large financial undertaking,” Fall said. “There are massive cost differences between flying commercial and flying charter.”
As for any specific travel nightmare stories to account for during his time in MLS, Petke shared only: “Too many to count. None really worth sharing. Just a lot of pain-in-the-ass flights.”
On Sunday morning, RSL will get to the airport early again, and do it all again to get back to Salt Lake.