Analysis / Commentary

How schedule congestion affects practice rhythm

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Two weeks ago a flat Philadelphia Union lost to last-place Toronto FC 3-1, playing on the fourth evening after they had beaten DC United in the capital by the exact same score.

While they recovered to beat New York Red Bulls on the weekend, the shock midweek result causes thinking about the difference between a schedule of single game weeks and one of multi-game ones.

Practice rhythm underpins games. Compare the practice rhythms of the Union in 2022 and to those of 2023.

A typical single game week

Discussion, experience, observation, and deduction create a sense of the Philadelphia Union’s probable practice rhythm. Assuming game day had been Saturday, this schedule inserts hypothetical days of the week into the pattern below for clarity.

  • Day After (Sunday)– Recovery and Rehabilitation: The group exercises together and then as individuals. For example, the team may take a long slow jog or exercise together in cool deep water. Exercising muscles while lowering body temperature in a buoyancy-assisted environment increases blood flow but reduces stress. That produces few new toxins and cleans out the old ones from the game’s anaerobic energy generation. Then individuals do what works best for them, such as muscle massage with a therapist.
  • Day Off (Monday): Players are at home doing laundry, groceries, doctors, dentists, phone calls home.
  • Day First (Tuesday)– Practice Resumes: Film sessions break down the previous game with suggested remediations. The team then practices on a pitch in the late morning. Everyone wears  monitors to record vital signs, log ground covered, and measure sprint speed. Individuals practice in the afternoon after lunch following plans tailored to each. As examples, an early days  Ilsinho worked on weight loss, then came sprint speed, and then was cutting precisely and immediately at his highest possible pace. Danny Cruz worked on dribbling around opponents, not through their prone bodies after he had flattened them. Brandan Craig lifted extra weights after eating a nutritionally appropriate meal.
  • Day Next (Wednesday) –Hard Practice: Film of the new opponent is presented and the game plan is discussed.  Team practice in the morning includes hard work in small sides using  restricted spaces with the squad divided into three groups. Two groups are always playing while the third rests.  They rotate so everyone logs the same minutes by the exercise’s end. A full field scrimmage can follow. Individual practices occur in the afternoon as above.
  • Day Next, if available, (Thursday) – Hard Practice: As above. The day may often be truncated by travel away.
  • Day Last (Friday) – Sharp, Intense, with fewer minutes & less distance: Smaller spaces, two groups playing. one group resting but in shorter rotations. Intensity is pushed verbally. Full field provides only instruction with one or two short bursts of repetition.
  • Game Day (Saturday).

Playing one game a week allows the same lineup to recover fully and play again in a predictable routine. Reducing the rhythm to six days or increasing it to eight interferes not at all. The model pays maximum salaries to starters, fills the bench with promising inexpensive youngsters, and has the youngsters improve by working daily with and against the veterans.

Sell the Aaronson brothers and Mark McKenzie overseas, and sell Matt Freese within the league. Use a frugal budget and elite talent spotting well. And judge and motivate players’ readiness to play games excellently. Correctly claim proof of concept as a financially self-sustaining, competitive player development side.

Head coach Jim Curtin has always been specific that his players must blend together well enough for the whole to exceed the sum of its parts. Everyone must integrate fully and instinctively into a difficult style of play, and each player must consistently perform at the upper limits of his capability.

The routines and principles described above together with the results of the 2022 season demonstrated the system’s proof of concept.


The weekly rhythm described, Curtin’s skill in blending his men together, Ernst Tanner’s discovery of an excellent combination of players within the limits of his annual salary budget, and — probably — captain Alejandro Bedoya judiciously kicking some butts while inspiring others produced exceptional success in 2022.

Thirty-five games were played during the 31 weeks of MLS’s 2022 regular season because the Union had not made the Concacaf Champions League and had lost in their first U. S. Open Cup match. Those apparent negatives were actual positives because practice rhythm remained intact and players remained properly rested.

In the 2022 season the Union faced only ten multi-game weeks. Twenty-one had single games only, played on at least the sixth day since the preceding one. Practice rhythm remained intact. Finding the emotion to play at the highest individual levels game after game remained possible. Multi-game weeks were only occasional obstacles for focus and conquest, and as such they created team-building and confidence. The concept was proved.

2023 has been different

As we were gently warned by Tanner and Curtin last winter, this season’s rhythm has been far less manageable.

Single game weeks have become occasional instead of the norm.  The Union have already played 40 matches across all competitions; they played just 38 all of last season. Only three-eighths of the time has the Union played on the sixth day or later. For five-eighths of the season they have played on the third or fourth day.

“Practice rhythm? What’s that?” Consider what playing on the third day means.

Human physiology mandates the recovery and rehabilitation day, and afternoon film sessions could be added to it. But then comes only our “Day Last” above because day three is game day. Were west coast travel needed, even Day Last would disappear. This pattern, or this pattern plus one, has been 2023’s norm not the exception.

This year Curtin’s whole has not always surpassed the sum of its parts. Several games have been flat.  The old concept has not conquered the graft of the Concacaf Champions League and the Leagues Cup onto 2022’s schedule. Has it been competitive? Perhaps. But conquering? Not so far.

The roster has needed additional present-use squad depth but in numbers greater than three. And those players have needed to be of higher quality. Only one remains useful in impacting a game, and using him means changing the shape. The second now sits because he provides no impact, and the third has been loaned to NYC FC to get minutes.

A deeper present-use squad necessarily means fewer slots allocated to deep reserve youth player development. That adjusts the underlying business model because it reduces the number of opportunities to sell youngsters overseas for model-sustaining profit.

The Union roster’s raw quantity is comparable to those of Europe’s five big leagues at 28 to 30. But the quality of its present-use depth is not. That quality must improve. In only two positions has there been interchangeability this year, and they are not in the midfield or the attack.

A healthy percentage of all revenues realized from 2023’s 13 extra games should be added to 2024’s salary budget to pay for a higher quality present-use bench in 2024, especially midfielders and attackers. Otherwise 2024’s continued high game frequency may destroy the expectations of success that sold the club’s 2023 Leagues Cup tickets. It is already likely that fewer of the 2024 Leagues Cup games will be at home.


Here is raw data on 2023 schedule congestion where N = the number of days after the previous game. All between-game intervals of six days or more are bold faced. (Season opener Columbus occurred a week after the last match of preseason.)

Opponent N   Opponent N   Opponent N
Columbus 7th @Minnesota 3rd D. C. 8th
@Miami 7th @Colorado 4th NY RB 5th
@Allianza 3rd D. C. 4th Queretaro 3rd
Chicago 4th NewEngland 3rd Miami 4th
Allianza 3rd @NYC FC 7th Monterrey 4th
@Montreal 4th Charlotte 4th D. C. 7th
Orlando 7th Montreal 3rd @Toronto 4th
Kansas City 7th @ San Jose 7th NY RB 4th
Atlas 3rd Orlando 11th Cincinnati 13th
@Cincinnati 4th Miami 3rd @Charlotte 4th
Atlas 4th @Atlanta 8th LA FC 3rd
@Chicago 3rd @LA Galaxy 6th Dallas 7th
Toronto 7th @Nashville 4th @Columbus 7th
LA FC 4th NYC FC 3rd Atlanta 4th
@LA FC 6th Tijuana 7th Nashville 3rd
@ NY RB 4th Queretaro 4th @NewEngland 14th


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Super interesting stuff. Enjoyed the read. Thanks!

  2. Good read! What are your two interchangeable positions? I have Harriel/Mbaizo and Flach/McGlynn

  3. A side note… anyone else see this creatively geekish move?


  4. Chris Gibbons says:

    A data point I’d be curious about is this: how does the Union’s N compare to the rest of the league, both is a raw number and then as a performance metric (points per N or points per game in games in which N<6, or something in there).

    • Agreed, Chris, but my background is history not statistics. It takes most a full day of concentrated effort to generate the data in the appendix, and that’s for the Union only and once all the schedules are available. Then it has to be updated as schedules are modified.
      Someone else with more efficient technique would have to generate what you seek.

  5. John P. O'Donnell says:

    Next year with Leagues Cup, Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions Cup, MLS regular season & playoffs how many games will players play if they are overly successful 55-60-65-70? That’s not counting intentional breaks which condense the schedule even more.
    For the group that’s going to suggest they get rid of Leagues Cup, that’s not going to happen with over ten corporate partners and many more inquiries since the arrival of Messi. This was a bigger success than they imagined for the first year. The tournament had over a million attended the first year and averaged around 17K. At $20 a ticket and that’s just hypothetical number, you have 20 million in revenue just on the gate. Chances are it will generate more revenue for MLS and Liga MX than CCC will next year.
    During the All-Star game the board met with the topic of the salary budget and increasing it in response to Messi’s arrival. You can imagine expanding the roster size will also be involved as reports of MLS generating 680 million in revenue for 2022 and will more than likely exceed that in 2023, gives reason to believe MLS is about to take a big leap next year in salary budget and roster size.
    First thought is they will do something similar to MLB with MLS Next Pro players being called up on two way contracts for more games. After that who knows what will happen?

    • I was floored to discover that actual first team roster sizes in Europe are not noticeably larger than MLS’s. More than that about the European League’s roster rules I do not know.
      That information leads me to assume MLS’s roster won’t in crease in any significant quantity. 30-32 to allowed for young, deep reserves to develop as candidates for sale elsewhere is what I would guess.
      Increasing the salary budget beyond the current CBA seems likely. IMO the Union need to do that. Other owners may object, but they will be obstructing quality improving. For me, Leagues cup showed the gap still exists between Liga MX’s elite and MLS’s.
      Monterrey used the third-place game as bench evaluation, and could do so because they were already qualified for the 2024 Concacaf champions’ Cup and needed to rest their best for the 2023-24 Liga MX Apertura.

  6. Its good that we may see larger rosters. The schedule for the glut of extra games and need for rotation make this a necessary move sooner than later. The increase cap numbers have been needed for a while. The larger roster will need a higher salary cap. We may have been salty about Miami and the circus of Messi. But the impact is farther reaching than we realize. I feel like the league has a huge challenge in keeping fans intrested and sponsors injecting money. There will always be ebb and flow to attendance and sponsorship intrest. I think we all hope that there’s not a massive and lasting drought when the Messi flood recedes.

    • I seriously doubt roster numbers will go past 30. THat’s all the biggest European clubs carry on their first teams. I looked a few years ago and was surprised. They have more layers of farm teams, I think.
      Of course they spend a LOT more and have higher quality on their benches. And they don’t necessarily use the first team rosters to develop youngsters for sale, the way the Union does.

      • Fair points. The salary increase may allow for better bench depth. The sell-on of young players has been a part of Union success. It was the teams way to generate cash. I think it will continue with any cap changes.

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