Expanded charter travel is a key component of the new collective bargaining agreement that Major League Soccer and the Major League Soccer Players Association tentatively approved Thursday morning.
The new CBA, which lasts through the 2024 MLS reason, requires all clubs to use charter flights for at least eight legs of travel in 2020, with the number of required legs increasing to 16 by 2024.
This is a significant change from the previous CBA, which allowed – but did not require – clubs to charter four legs per season.
The new CBA also requires clubs to charter flights for the MLS Cup playoffs and Concacaf Champions League matches that require international travel.
While these updates are a compromise – prior to negotiations, players said they wanted all flights to be chartered – expanding charter travel to 16 legs per season by 2024 should significantly improve the experience MLS players have with getting to and from away matches.
“I think it’s vital,” Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said during a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon. “I think the way it incrementally increases throughout the deal and the mandatory provision is a huge stepping stone for us as players.”
“One thing we’ve always been told by the league during preseason meetings is it wants to improve our game and product on the field,” Larentowicz added. “Players see it as important for us and our livelihood, but we wanted to see the league giving us that.”
Many players have spoken on the record or used their personal social media accounts to vent their frustrations about commercial travel in the past, especially when it’s interfered with game preparation or match recovery.
Other gripes include the lack of leg room on long commercial flights, a sense that traveling commercial isn’t professional and interferes with team-bonding, and culture shock for international players who are accustomed to more privacy.
“We’ve heard plenty of stories about delays and travel,” Finlay said. “When we talk about this, it’s not just for the comfy travel of a charter. The primary reason we want charters is to improve the game…When you get on a plane and take those long flights, have those long travel days after games you’re not able to recover as effectively.”
If MLS keeps a 34-game regular season schedule going forward, clubs by 2024 will be required to use charter travel for eight of their 17 road games. While that amounts to less than half of all away trips, most teams don’t fly to all their destinations and travel by bus when possible.
That said, bus travel is easier for Eastern Conference teams, as its clubs are generally spread out over shorter distances than in the Western Conference.
As far as intra-conference games go, some MLS teams will travel cross-country more infrequently during the regular season starting in 2020. This is because of the league’s continued expansion, which is now at 26 teams and will reach 30 by 2022. With 26 teams, a 34-game regular season does not allow clubs to face all their conference rivals twice and their opponents in the other conference once.
As such, this is the first season in MLS history that clubs won’t play every team in the league at least once, which has allowed for less cross-country travel.
Sources told Pro Soccer USA that MLS rejected outright charter travel because the league did not believe the level of spending required to accommodate such a change was possible at this time. That said, some club owners across the league, like the Kraft family in New England, have begun investing in private aircraft that could be used if charter travel ever becomes ubiquitous league-wide.
“By no means do we think we’re there yet, but it’s a good starting point on the issue,” Foose said. “We’ve talked repeatedly about charter travel the last couple of years. It’s critically important to player performance as well as player health.”