Everywhere you look in the soccer world, another team is worrying about its schedule. In England, Manchester City complained mightily about having to play in the FA Cup on a Sunday, with a Champions League game scheduled only three days later.
City manager Manuel Pellegrini said, “It’s not a real game, of course. I would not pay for the ticket.” Almost as a protest, his starting lineup included five players making their first appearances for the senior team. The overly youthful side was duly hammered 5-1 by Chelsea.
On our own side of the pond, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was complaining about the “disadvantage” of the CONCACAF Champions League schedule. Though MLS doesn’t kick off until next Sunday, the quarterfinals of the CCL began this week — and all four remaining MLS teams are matched with Liga MX teams that are in the middle of their season. In the first leg of the two-game quarterfinals, the four MLS teams went winless, and all four are decided underdogs to advance to the semifinals after this week’s rematches.
Mexican teams, meanwhile, do well in the Champions League but play half-strength teams in their own domestic cup competition as a matter of course. Not to be outdone, every year a handful of MLS teams basically ignore the U.S. Open Cup because the burden of a few extra games is too much for their squads to bear.
Even Minnesota United, with few other midweek games on the schedule, has lost to lower-division sides in the U.S. Open Cup twice in the past three years, in part because of the practice of resting first-team players.
Playing two games a week, with travel in between, isn’t exactly easy, but winning trophies isn’t supposed to be easy. For example, take Barcelona. Since a brief Christmas holiday, Barca hasn’t gone more than four days without playing a match. The great Lionel Messi played in all but two of those games, a punishing stretch in which he still managed 15 goals in 14 appearances.
The whole run was capped off last week with a difficult Champions League game, away against Arsenal — and Messi played the entire game and scored both goals in a 2-0 Barcelona win.
True greatness doesn’t mean showing up just once a week, or only winning once your team is into the middle of the season and comfortable, or pretending that domestic cup competitions are beneath your team. Whether in Europe or North America, competing on multiple fronts and playing more than once a week is a test, not a scheduling flaw.
The great teams find ways to win despite the congested schedule. The ones that can’t handle the test will complain — and will go home without a title, as they should.
• It has been a rough week so far for Minnesota United, which lost 4-0 to both Portland and Chicago in preseason tuneups. United had high hopes of giving MLS teams a run for their money. Instead, it was obvious the Loons hadn’t played a preseason game yet, while their opponents had been in training for more than a month. Fitness aside, Minnesota at times looked slow and out of sorts, especially in the center of defense — one of the many things the Loons have to work on before their April 2 opener in the North American Soccer League.
• UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino was elected FIFA president on Friday, but the more important vote was the passage of a package of reforms, including major changes to the game’s governance and term limits for FIFA leaders. Here’s hoping the reforms put an end to the corrupt, dictatorial leadership that has marked FIFA for decades.
• The Byzantine nature of the MLS salary rule book was on display in the following summary of a midweek trade from a league news release: “Colorado received an international slot and targeted allocation money from San Jose in exchange for general allocation money.” That was the entire confusing trade: a roster spot and one type of cash for another type of cash.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
League Cup: Liverpool vs. Manchester City, 10:30 a.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. Jurgen Klopp has barely begun his tenure as Liverpool Manager, while Manuel Pellegrini is coming to the end of his time in charge of Manchester City, but only one will lift the first trophy of the English season. City is heavily favored in this game, but the last time the two met, Liverpool won 4-1.
La Liga: Atlético Madrid at Real Madrid, 9 a.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. Both Madrid sides appear unable to catch Barcelona for the title, but on derby day that hardly matters. Real is the rich, establishment team, Atlético the built-on-a-budget favorite of Madrid’s working class. Though it’s usually the underdog in this game, Atlético hasn’t lost to Real in two seasons.
Premier League: Arsenal at Manchester United, 8 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal is under fire after a string of disappointments have left United far adrift of England’s top four. That said, Arsenal is hardly licking its lips; the Gunners, though chasing a title this season, haven’t won a Premier League game at Old Trafford in nearly a decade.
Serie A: Inter Milan at Juventus, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. After 15 consecutive Serie A victories, the Juventus winning streak finally ended with a draw last week. While the streak put Turin’s finest back on top of Italy, Juventus is still only a point ahead of Napoli — and Inter, mired in fifth, desperately needs a result to push for a berth in next season’s Champions League.