The question among USL PRO fan-geeks all week? Would the growing league’s 28-game 2014 schedule be balanced, unbalanced, or only slightly unbalanced?
On Thursday we got our answer. And it’s unbalanced, alright.
So while the big local headline is probably the Battery’s home-opener against champion Orlando City on March 22, it’s probably worth at least a sub-head to point out that the Battery’s unbalanced schedule will mean two more games against Orlando … with both of them (April 12 and May 31) played at Orlando.
In fact, rather than a slight unbalancing with extra games against natural rivals to reduce the number of cross-continental road trips, unbalancing is the rule, not the exception this year.
The Battery, for instance, will play one home match and two away matches against Orlando, Rochester and Harrisburg. Charleston gets the home-and-away advantage against two teams: Richmond and Pittsburgh.
And there are seven teams on the schedule that the Battery will face only once. The New York Red Bulls reserves (April 18), L.A. Galaxy II (June 14), Phoenix FC Wolves (July 26) and LA Blues (Aug. 13) all visit Blackbaud. But Battery fans will have to go to the Internet this season to watch their team play the Montreal Impact reserves (Aug. 3) and expansion Oklahoma City Energy (Aug. 24) and the Sacramento Republic (Aug. 27).
By my counting, the Battery get traditional home-and-away series against just three teams: Wilmington, Charlotte and Dayton. And since two of those teams are Carolinas rivals, it poses the question: If travel costs were the reason behind the unbalanced schedule, why is Charleston playing three matches, with two away, against Rochester and Harrisburg? Why not keep the unbalancing as compact as possible?
You can look at the Battery’s tough list of unbalanced opponents and say “If you want to be the best, you’ve got to play the best.” That’s true. But on the flip side, hobbled second-year club Phoenix FC and expansion Oklahoma City play each other four times in 2014, and those matches count for exactly the same number of points as Charleston’s extra matches against Orlando and Richmond. And for the record, neither Phoenix nor Sacramento play Orlando at Orlando. Do the math.
On the bright side, the 28-game schedule means a significantly longer season. In 2013 the Battery played a relatively compressed 26-game schedule that began in April and ended in August. This year they begin play at home on March 22 against Orlando and end the regular season at home against Harrisburg on Sept. 5. The top eight seeds enter a single-elimination tournament that begins on Sept. 12, with the championship to be decided on the weekend of Sept. 26.
To put that in context, when the Battery won the 2012 USL PRO Championship, the game was played on Sept. 8.
The schedule gives the Battery two home games to start their season, but they’re against the two best teams from 2013, league champion Orlando and Commissioner’s Cup-winning Richmond. Two of the Battery’s first three matches will be against Orlando, which is making its final tour of the league before moving up to MLS in 2015.
After that opening two-game home stand in March, the Battery won’t play back-to-back regular season home matches again until August, when they’ll host Dayton (Aug. 8), LA Blues (Aug. 13) and Rochester (Aug. 15). They’ll close out the season with consecutive home games against Pittsburgh (Aug. 30) and Harrisburg (Sept. 5).
Last season’s schedule kept the Battery hopping during the height of the U.S. Open Cup schedule in May and June. This May looks busy as well, with six games on the calendar, but then the Battery get only seven matches in all of June (3) and July (4). This summer the league will be competing for the attention of fans interested not only in MLS, but also the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which gets underway in June.
The Battery’s toughest stretch, at least in terms of fatigue, will come early. The team visits Pittsburgh on April 26, then drives overnight to Rochester to play on April 27. Five days later the team will visit Harrisburg on May 2, then drive west to Dayton, take the night off, and then play the Dutch Lions on May 4th. With that short break between Rochester (April 27) and Harrisburg (May 2), you have to wonder whether there’s a good option between coming home and going back, or sticking around to train up north.
However, once that four-game road stretch is out of the way, the Battery don’t face another grueling road test until August, when they get two of them. Charleston takes on Rochester (Aug. 1) and Montreal (Aug. 3), comes home for three games, and then flies (one presumes) West for their first-ever tests against Oklahoma City (Aug. 24) and Sacramento (Aug. 27).
One interesting anomaly? The Battery will play both its matches against regional rival Wilmington during one week in May, hosting the new-look Hammerheads on the 10th and visiting them on the 17th.
In general, the Battery’s schedule can be described as back-loaded. With seven games in August and the final match on Sept. 5, they could have games in hand on some of their opponents if they need to make a late run for the playoffs. Playing six of their last nine at home doesn’t hurt, either.
But here’s the bottom line: An unbalanced schedule in a league with a single table means that each team will be judged on the same point total despite facing different levels of competition. Which means that any team that has to play the MLS-bound Orlando City Lions twice on the road starts at a competitive disadvantage.
That doesn’t mean Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser won’t find a way to flip that disadvantage on its ear, either tactically or psychologically. And you can already hear the staff and players talking about welcoming a challenge. That’s what competitors do.
But here, before that begins, it’s OK for fans to acknowledge the quiet truth. This schedule didn’t do our side any favors in 2014.
Then again, count your blessings. Just think how unfair this might have been if Antigua was still in the mix.