Union's brutal travel schedule could cause headaches on and off the field

If you happened to be in the Philadelphia airport at just the right time on Thursday, you’d probably have seen Union players and staff in the same security line as all the other commercial passengers headed to flights across the country.

Major League Soccer teams rarely take charter flights to road games. The league allows each club a total of four one-way charters each year for regular-season contests. So teams almost always fly commercial, which means they’re subjected to the same delays, cancellations and other headaches as the rest of the public.

The odds of the Union coming down with some headaches over the next few days are higher than usual. The team is flying to San Jose and back for Saturday’s game against the Earthquakes (10:30 p.m., TCN), then to Toronto the following Tuesday for Wednesday’s game against Toronto FC (8 p.m., TCN).

Jim Curtin has lived through the hassles for nine years as a player and six years as a coach. He is as sick of it as everyone else in the league.

“I know the scheduling is always difficult, but I think any time you go across country, whether it’s us going to San Jose or vice versa — if San Jose comes to New York — it’d be nice to not have a follow-up [game] on a Wednesday, with all that travel,” he said. “Charters are something that hopefully are coming to the league [in greater numbers] to make that travel as quick as possible. Especially in summer months when you get delays, where teams are now getting stuck and stranded.”

There have been several well-documented instances of MLS teams getting stuck at airports in recent weeks. It happened to D.C. United twice this year, going to Montreal in late June and to Minneapolis in late July. Orlando City got stuck at Montreal’s airport in early August, and passed the time watching a nationally-televised MLS game at a bar near its gate. Last week, the Impact got delayed coming to Philadelphia to face the Union, and again leaving town the next day.

“It is a unique situation when you have David Villa and Kaká flying on Southwest,” Curtin said.

That was a slight exaggeration, as MLS teams generally fly other carriers. Some, like Villa’s New York City FC, have airline sponsorship deals that help a bit. But even those arrangements are not optimal.

For most of MLS’s history, the charter flight rule has been viewed as a necessary evil. A Los Angeles Times report last year noted the per-game travel budget allotted by the league to clubs covers 25 economy airline tickets, 15 hotel rooms and bus transportation around the destination city. For a middle-distance flight, that can cost up to the low five figures. The Times calculated that replacing commercial flights with charters would add approximately $20 million to the leaguewide travel bill.

That’s not a small sum. But more money is being spent than ever before on player salaries, transfer fees and training facilities around the league. There’s also been a healthy injection of new cash from global broadcasters and sponsors. Just this month, adidas signed a $700 million, six-year extension of its contract as MLS’s official apparel supplier.

It all increases the pressure to solve the charter problem. So does the fact that travel for other competitions, such as the CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup, is not restricted in the same way.

“Our ownership groups are smart guys, and as the investments increase and rise in the players that they’re spending millions of dollars on as their assets, they want them healthy and they want them on the field,” Curtin said. “I think there is urgency in that area. I think at a minimum on the real cross-country flights, it’s kind of almost necessary at this stage. … As the game continues to grow, that will definitely be an issue that our ownership groups will be on board with.”

At least, that’s what he hopes. His words were his own, after all, not those of Union owner Jay Sugarman. But if anyone would know the true benefits of expanding charter use, it’s someone with Curtin’s experience.

“It goes to putting a better product on the field, for sure,” he “said. “The game is the beneficiary. …  It gives [players] the least likelihood of injury when they’re able to get in and get out to cities and have their bodies recover in a timely fashion.”

Union at San Jose Earthquakes

10:30 p.m. Saturday at Avaya Stadium

TV/online streaming: TCN, MLSSoccer.com (paid subscription)

Union's record: 8-11-5, 29 points (9th in the East); 1-7-3 on the road
San Jose's record: 9-10-5, 32 points (6th in the West); 7-1-4 at home

All-time series: Union 3 wins, Earthquakes 4 wins, 2 ties
At San Jose: Union 1 win, Earthquakes 2 wins, 1 tie

San Jose players to watch

Forward Chris Wondolowski: Yes, he'll always be known for that big miss at the 2014 World Cup. But he's one of the most consistent and lethal scorers in MLS history, and he shows no signs of slowing down at age 34. He's got nine goals in 24 games this year, and five assists too.

Midfielder Valeri 'Vako' Qazaishvili: The 24-year-old Georgian - that's the country, not the U.S. state - joined the Earthquakes as a Designated Player in late June, and scored in his first game.

Midfielder Tommy Thompson: The Earthquakes' first ever Homegrown Player signing was stuck as a bench player for years, but he has finally broken through this season.