D.C. United, Toronto FC kick off at 9 a.m. for MLS is Back opener, and not everyone is pleased
“Get some coffee in you,” United Coach Ben Olsen said, “and let’s go.”
The match was supposed to take place Friday night, but after Toronto’s travel to Florida was delayed several days by testing issues, MLS rescheduled. Most tournament games are being held at night, but to avoid playing in Florida’s torrid summer conditions, some start in the morning.
United’s delegation will rise before the sun does, eat around 7 (orange slices?) and board the bus for the three-mile ride to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. With all teams staying at the same Disney resort, Toronto will follow a similar regimen.
“We haven’t played at that time since we were 10, 11, 12 years old,” D.C. defender/midfielder Russell Canouse said.
Defender Donovan Pines sees a silver lining. “Maybe it’s better because we don’t have to wait around all day to play,” he said. “You’ve got to wake your body up.”
The rescheduled match and subsequent game times will test United’s body clocks. Its second Group C match, against the Montreal Impact on Thursday, will start at 8 p.m. The last game, against the New England Revolution on July 21, is set for 10:30 p.m.
Speaking in general about the month-long tournament, Olsen said, “This is an exercise in adapting and being ready to roll with the punches. This was never going to go smoothly. As long as you are prepared for that and don’t get too caught up in the twists and turns of this tournament, as long as you have the right mind-set dealing with the hurdles, you’ll be okay.”
Toronto players are not thrilled with the 9 a.m. kickoff.
“It’s a shame we’re playing games at that time,” captain Michael Bradley said in a video news conference. “When you are talking about wanting to bring the league back, wanting to bring games back in a moment like this, obviously the hope is that there are a lot of people watching.
“And you want to feel like the players and the teams and the product on display is as close to the highest level as possible. When you think about what a 9 a.m. game in Orlando at this time of year is going to mean, I’m not sure it makes a ton of sense.”
The flip side of that is, thus far, the night matches involving rusty teams have been of low quality. And as for viewers, soccer fans in the United States and Canada are accustomed to tuning into morning matches being played in Europe.
Nonetheless, the weather, even at that early hour, will become a factor for teams that have not played competitively since early March.
At kickoff, the forecast calls for a temperature of 82, but with 87 percent humidity, it will feel like 92. By the end of the match, that latter figure will reach 98. There is also a slight chance of rain and only a light breeze.
“These 9 a.m. games are not the way,” Toronto forward Jozy Altidore wrote on his Twitter page. “Way too hot out here for all that.”
Starting time notwithstanding, United is eager to play for real again. The group stage counts toward the regular season, and D.C. is looking to up its performance after losing to Colorado and coming from behind to defeat Miami, both at Audi Field, to open the season.
One unnamed D.C. player tested positive for the coronavirus last month but recovered. No players opted out of the tournament. Attacker Paul Arriola remained behind to continue rehabbing a preseason ACL injury. Winger Emmanuel Boateng and backup goalkeeper Chris Seitz are battling minor injuries.
“It’s difficult after so long to be perfect, but our goal the past couple weeks was to get as close as possible to where we want to be,” midfielder Felipe Martins said. “We know how much it means to start the right way in this tournament.”
Like the other coaches here, Olsen is tempering expectations.
“We understand it won’t be perfect,” he said. “Does it translate into the quality we all want to see? I’m not sure. None of the coaches are really sure about what they are putting out there because of the lack of preparation and how fractured it’s been.”
Before seeing how his players perform, Olsen will need to make sure they don’t oversleep. Since the schedule change was announced, some players said they have been going to bed earlier to prepare for the early wake-up Sunday.
In the first morning game of the tournament, Philadelphia defeated New York City FC, 1-0, on Thursday. The Union worked with sports science experts and dietitians, Coach Jim Curtin said.
Breakfast, he said, was a “wide variety of food you don’t normally see at a pregame meal. It was a unique experience for everybody. Because we won, we’ll say we got it right.”