FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – If you support the New England Revolution, you should avoid making plans on Saturday or Wednesday evenings for the foreseeable future.
In what will be fantastic preface to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in June – when passionate soccer fans can typically watch multiple games in a single day – the Revs will play eight games in the month of May, averaging one match every 3.6 days. For a sport in which clubs generally only play once a week, that’s a lot of soccer.
The odyssey kicks off this Saturday night, May 1, when the Revolution hosts Western Conference foe FC Dallas at Gillette Stadium. It will be the first of six MLS regular-season games that month, as the Revs will follow up with matches against Chivas USA (May 5), the Columbus Crew (May 8), the San Jose Earthquakes (May 15), Toronto FC (May 22) and the New York Red Bulls (May 29). Additionally, the Revs will face either the Red Bulls or the expansion Philadelphia Union in a U.S. Open Cup play-in match on May 12, while an international friendly against Portuguese power Benfica is scheduled for May 19.
The good news for the Revolution is that five of those eight matches will take place within in the familiar confines of Gillette Stadium, and the club will not have to leave the Eastern Time Zone during the stretch. In that sense, the travel will be limited, with trips to Columbus, Toronto and either Philadelphia or New York on the docket.
Even so, the toll of playing so many games in such a short amount of time can be taxing on the athletes, no matter what level of fitness they maintain.
“It’s all about taking care of your body,” said midfielder Pat Phelan. “Obviously, it’s a lot of games in a short amount of time. The team’s had problems with injuries the last couple of years (in similar situations), so it’s important for everyone – from an individual standpoint – to step up and take care of their bodies.”
Only once before has the Revolution played as many as eight games in a single month. That was in August 2008, when the Revs played eight matches in four different competitions: the MLS regular season, the U.S. Open Cup, SuperLiga and the CONCACAF Champions League.
While that does give head coach Steve Nicol prior experience leading his team through such a hectic schedule, circumstances were different in 2008. That year, MLS clubs were allowed 28-man rosters and the league operated a reserve league designed for players who weren’t getting much game action in the first team. For that reason, the Revs were able to rotate their starting 11 when necessary, utilize everyone on the roster, and subsequently avoid burnout.
Now, league rules only allow for a 24-man roster, and the reserve league no longer exists. What that means is much less wiggle room when it comes to resting players.
“I guess you need a bit of luck with injuries – that’s the first thing,” said Nicol when asked about the keys to guiding a team through such a busy stretch.
The Revolution is already behind the eight-ball in that sense, as the club enters May without the services of multiple key players. Both Matt Reis and Taylor Twellman are still recovering from long-term injuries, while Emmanuel Osei, Zak Boggs and Mauricio Castro are also on the injury report. Add to that list Shalrie Joseph – who has been granted an indefinite leave of absence from the club to attend to personal matters – and the Revs begin one of the busiest months in club history with only 18 fully healthy, available players.
With that in mind, Nicol’s options will be limited when it comes to roster selection. Even so, he admits it’s unrealistic to put out the same lineup for eight games in one month.
“I’d be shocked if it’s the same 11 that’s out there every game,” he said. “We’re going to have to use everybody. We’ll need some fresh legs at certain points. We’ll be starting every game with the intention of going after it and trying to win it.”
One way that the coaching staff handles the task of preparing the club for a two-games-a-week schedule is to limit the players’ exertion in training. A typical one-game-a-week schedule almost always consists of a full week of training leading up to the match, with varying degrees of stress put on the players in each session.
With eight games in one month, however, Nicol knows that he must alter his training methods in order to rest the players and prevent them from exhaustion before game day, while at the same time keeping the rest of the team ready for action.
“As far as the guys playing most of the time, it’ll be a jog and a stretch,” said Nicol of the typical training session in May. “Obviously, we need to watch everybody. Some people won’t play that many games and we have to make sure if we have anybody who hasn’t really participated much, we have to make sure they’re fit and ready to go.”
In addition to the training regimen laid out by the coaching staff, Phelan says it also comes down to each individual player knowing when to push themselves and when to pull back.
“Whether we have nine days before our next game or two, the guys pretty much know what they need to do to get their bodies in the best condition they can,” he said.
Based on the factors at hand, most players and coaches would probably agree that eight games in one month isn’t an ideal schedule. However, it’s a basic fact that athletes play sports because they love the competition of game day. In the end – for players and fans alike – no one’s complaining about the opportunity to play twice a week.
“We’re professional athletes and that’s what we live for,” said forward Kheli Dube, who was part of the Revolution’s roster during the eight-game stretch in August 2008. “We live to play in games and the more we play games, the more we enjoy it.”
It’s a good thing the Revs enjoy games. Should they win their U.S. Open Cup play-in match against New York or Philadelphia on May 12, the possibility exists that a ninth game could be scheduled for the month of May.