Major League Soccer, usually referred to as MLS, is the premier football league based in North America, featuring 29 teams between the United States and Canada. And for the longest time, MLS regulations forced players to almost exclusively utilize only commercial aviation to get from city to city for their matches.
In contrast, other high-level sports teams are allowed the convenience and luxury of chartered flights for their games. MLS teams were each permitted four individual privately chartered legs (two matches if the service is roundtrip) for a whole season, but players and coaches grew increasingly upset with such rules.
Commercial flights are prone to many potential issues
One of the largest problems was that these football players, frequent flyers as a side effect of the sport (as a regular season involves about 34 matches), faced the same issues that average travelers eventually meet while on the move. Delays, overnights at the airport, unbelievably early wake-up times, etc. While these are first-world problems, and most passengers manage on despite the unpleasantness, for MLS players, this meant showing up to same-day matches completely unprepared or going without sleep and connecting through multiple airports on the day they were supposed to rest.
Strenuous exercise without proper rest and warmup can easily lead to sports injuries. On an occasion when Montreal Impact had an odd travel schedule, getting them to their match against the New England Revolution just hours before kickoff, the team formally requested the game be delayed; the league denied it. Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush, the club’s MLS Players Association representative, said in an interview,
“Honestly it’s a joke. You can talk to anybody from the administration to the players and the coaches, the way that the last 24 hours happened should never have happened…It became a player safety issue. It’s not just a matter of inconvenience for us. We’re lucky that we didn’t have guys get injured today because of the way their bodies were treated the last 24 hours.”
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Eventually, MLS players had enough. Instead of openly complaining, according to USA Today in February 2020, just before Covid broke out across North America, the league and its players’ union finally granted the use of charter flights as a part of their contracts. Minnesota winger Ethan Finlay said,
“Our primary reason for going for charters was to just improve the game, to be able to get players home at the end of a night after a game so that you don’t lose a day, you can have a recovery day.”
Salaries and team spending power were increased as part of the deal, but certainly, the expanded use of charters was a primary highlight for the league. And, given the timeframe, chartered flights became even more of a staple than expected.
Covid didn’t just halt aviation; it hit nearly every industry, including sports. For a while, just as most aircraft were parked, sports matches of all sorts were rescheduled and delayed. As stated by the Los Angeles Times, MLS did not restrict the use of chartered flights to further lessen the risk of spreading disease. At the time, Zack Murshedi from the Los Angeles Galaxy explained how they would finally have a regular away schedule,
“We’ll leave in the morning, go to the hotel, have lunch, go to the game, play the game, and then we’ll fly back home. For the most part it’s pretty straightforward.”
They had chartered a Sun Country Airlines Boeing 737 to ferry players from Los Angeles to Portland. While this practice is undoubtedly more expensive than previous procedures, it must make fans happy to know the players representing their city can show up ready to go and return for proper rest.