The often-untold story of a professional soccer season is that of grinding fatigue. Fixture congestion is a simple fact of the modern game. Game follows game too quickly for the players to recover, even with the most advanced physiological monitoring and recovery techniques. A game on Saturday; a game on Wednesday; a game on Saturday; a game on Wednesday - the calendar starts to feel like running down a tunnel that extends without a break. Fatigue doesn’t just make running hard; it narrows one’s vision, dulls one’s thinking. Fatigue turns a good touch mediocre, and a mediocre touch poor.
The crazy thing is, no one really wants relief. The terrible double bind of fixture congestion is that the only way off the merry-go-round is to lose games. Bombing out of a cup competition may open up the schedule a bit, but it’s a route few choose willingly.
When the Houston Dynamo travel to Sporting Kansas City Tuesday evening for their 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal match, neither will be well-rested – each played Saturday evening. Neither will be near full-strength – both are dealing with international absences and injuries. The line of games will extend before them for months to come. Yet they’ll fight like mad to continue the pain because glory has no fixed price, and winning is the only salve that truly makes the weariness worth it.
Not everyone goes about managing fatigue the same way. In Houston’s Owen Coyle and Sporting’s Peter Vermes, we have an interesting case study in two diverging ways of handling fatigue.
Coyle: Come on lads, all together now!
When Houston announced Coyle as the second-ever manager of the Dynamo this past offseason, some raised an eyebrow - the annals of successful foreign managers in MLS is more pamphlet than encyclopedia. But the Scot has unflinchingly proceeded with the task of remaking the Dynamo in his image, placing special emphasis on depth by developing younger members of the roster.
“The great thing is that we have a fantastic group of young lads, really exciting young talent, who we’ve challenged from day one to be hungry, to press for a place, and they’ve responded right along,” Coyle said. “It’s my job to develop them so they can show what they can do in a game, and it’s one of the really fun things about the job. Whoever goes out for us will be ready to fight for the badge and up for the challenge.”
Former young Designated Player Alex Lopez has been the primary beneficiary of this youth emphasis, although Leonel Miranda and Rob Lovejoy have also received quite a bit of seasoning in spot duty. It’s fortunate, then, that these younger footballers have some experience, because Houston is far below full strength at the moment due to a combination of international call-ups and injuries.
“The Gold Cup has torn us up a bit. DaMarcus [Beasley, called up to the USA], of course. But also [Oscar] Boniek Garcia came back hurt; he’s out four to six weeks. Jermaine Taylor got hurt with Jamaica, and he’s out six weeks too,” Coyle said. “It’s a little different here. When I was at Bolton, we had 14 internationals, and none of them ever missed a league game, because of FIFA breaks. In MLS, it’s different. You have to plan for these absences.”
The Dynamo boss also hopes that - whoever starts against Sporting - the memories of the teams’ only previous meeting season will provide extra motivation to make the crucial play. On April 25, Houston led KC, 3-2 and 4-3 only to be undone by a late penalty and an even later game-tying goal.
“We had a really incredible, really crazy 4-4 game against Kansas City. That was a game where we had a 3-2 lead and felt we should’ve been home and dry. Then some tough calls, a penalty, a soft red card - it was crazy,” the Houston manager remembered. “That’s one our guys want back, one we all want back. We’ve talked about it -- yes, we’ve talked about it quite a bit.”
Vermes: Winners notice all the details, check every box
Contrasted to Coyle’s smiling, upbeat approach, Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes displays an almost technocratic precision in pursuit of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
“Make no mistake: We won this trophy in 2012, and we covet it. We take it very seriously,” Vermes said.
Sporting are in a difficult bind; playing on two days’ rest is never ideal, and they’ll have to do it twice in a row, since MLS scheduled them for a Friday evening game in the altitude of Salt Lake City.
“Our real difficulty is the schedule. We have three games in seven days, with a travel day too. We have to be very smart about it, because it puts us in a precarious position, to be honest,” Vermes explained. “There’s a variety of things we’re monitoring, basically all the time, that go into the decision [to play or rest a player]. We monitor heart rate, sprint rates.
“Travel has a huge impact, so we have to monitor that constantly, too. Diet, climate – there are a host of factors that we weigh. But yes, we are going to have to be very smart about who plays Tuesday because there’s still travel and Friday’s game to consider.”
Sporting’s overall roster is in better shape than Houston’s, though. Kansas City is missing Graham Zusi, who is with the USA for the Gold Cup, but otherwise they are a hale and hearty group who boast the best points-per-game mark in MLS. If they can navigate this difficult passage, the possibility of a truly remarkable season beckons, buoyed by a run through a tournament Vermes called “one of the really great things about soccer in America.”
“It’s a truly open competition,” the KC skipper opined. “I usually say to people [who don’t understand the concept], ‘Imagine there was a knockout tourney where a Single-A baseball team could get hot and wind up going toe-to-toe with a Major League Baseball team?’
“Everyone would go nuts for it, and the Open Cup is that.”