TORONTO — When English striker Bradley Wright-Phillips arrived in Major League Soccer, he was looking forward to seeing North America.
Then the reality of MLS travel set in for the New York Red Bulls star.
“Little did I know some of the flights were seven hours,” recalled the charismatic Brit, perhaps exaggerating a tad. “When I got on the plane to Seattle, I felt like I got set up. I remember asking someone how long left and they said something like five hours. I had already finished the film. I was thinking ‘I’ll have a drink and then we’ll land.’ It’s crazy.”
The travel grind hasn’t derailed him. Including playoffs, Wright-Phillips has 76 goals since joining the Red Bulls in 2013 and won the Golden Boot Award as the league’s top goal-scorer in 2014 and ’16.
But he still doesn’t like MLS travel.
“Personally I don’t think I’ll every get used to the travelling,” he said. “Never.”
It’s easy to see why. Toronto to Vancouver is some 3,365 kilometres, 820 more than London to Moscow. And unlike their North American sports counterparts, MLS teams generally fly commercial.
MLS limits clubs to charter four legs per year when it comes to league play although teams can add charters if cheaper than the commercial alternative.
Contrast that with the Toronto Raptors, Blue Jays and Maple Leafs, who charter routinely. Even in the cash-conscious CFL, the Argonauts chartered to half their away games last season although clearly finding room for an entire football team on a commercial plane is a challenge.
The MLS collective bargaining agreement allows the league to authorize more charters. And it will do so when circumstances dictate. But restricting the number serves as a way of keeping the haves and have-nots on a level playing field.
“I think it’s something that we’re looking at as a league,” Greg Anderson, Vancouver’s vice-president of soccer operations, said of increased charter use. “But where we are as a league, it’s a reality and I think we just try to do the best we can to make the travel as smooth as possible.”
Toronto FC usually sends a 32-man contingent to away games, counting players, coaches and other staff.
Ted Tieu, Toronto’s manager of team operations, is the pointman for travel. He took over the task from Corey Wray, now TFC’s director of team operations, and has the logistics down to an art.
When the schedule comes out, he co-ordinates with Sportscorp Travel, an agency based in Bolton, Ont., that now handles all the league, to help get the team from A to B and work with league-approved hotels.
Toronto tries to fly Air Canada whenever possible, citing customer service and seat selection among other things. Having players build up status with the airline also helps cut baggage costs (under the CBA players get to keep their points).
Teams have worked hard to streamline airport procedure, including getting Nexus cards for players whenever possible to ease customs.
Tieu is the advance man, arriving early with the equipment manager to get bags checked in and to double-check passports. The players and coaches, who normally travel with carry-on, get their boarding passes and go through security.
The players get window or aisle seats, as per the CBA.
At six foot three, there is nothing economy about Toronto goalkeeper Clint Irwin’s frame. Not that he is complaining.
“I try to do my best to find a little bit of leg room somewhere,” said Irwin, who is TFC’s union rep. “If I can get an exit row, that’s great. But at some point, you can’t complain about it. It’s just what the league is at this point and you’ve just got to get on with it.”
While in the past select Toronto players or staff have flown business class, none of those you might expect have availed of themselves to get special treatment.
“Uniquely with this group they’ve all said ‘No thank you, we want to sit with everyone else.’ That’s been great for us,” Wray said.
It’s the same with the Whitecaps.
Toronto has an advantage over some other clubs in it almost always can fly direct to league destinations. The Whitecaps will fly direct to 12 of 17 away games this season.
While teams have done all they can to ease travel, flying commercial means they can fall prey to the kind of travel snarls we all do — from weather delays and mechanical issues to unexpected visits to secondary customs.
An example was a trip to Montreal when there was no gate available to land. The plane returned to Toronto and had to land before taking off again.
TFC has traditionally chartered to Salt Lake because of a lack of simple options getting there. But thanks to a direct flight, the team is flying commercial for the season opener there March 4.
Wray and Tieu look to keep their options open, given the charter limit extends to the playoffs. For games Saturday and Wednesday in early May in Seattle and Columbus, the team has commercial options both to fly home from Seattle and go from Seattle to Columbus or charter from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest.
The ultimate decision will made with coach Greg Vanney, GM Tim Bezbatchenko and president Bill Manning.
Charters can be “astronomical,” says Wray, so if they can fly easily commercially, the decision is easy.
The CONCACAF Champions League is a different entity and doesn’t count against the league charter rules. With destinations like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, Toronto has typically chartered in the past.
“Anything that can go wrong typically goes wrong on those trips so we try to control as much as possible,” said Wray.
Like other teams, the Whitecaps try to build science into the timing of their travel plans. Often the team will stay on West Coast time when it travels east, staying up later, sleeping in and eating at regular times to avoid disruption.
Vanney played 10 seasons in MLS and says travel has improved since his day.
“I think still the next step is charter flights and the hope that we can get there fairly soon. Just because the days become incredibly long … it becomes a whole-day project no matter how short or how far you go.”
Flying charters is more efficient and this is better for the players and the on-field product, Vanney argues.
He has seen both sides of the coin. Away from MLS, he played for France’s SC Bastia, which is located on the island of Sicily.
The team chartered everywhere, usually flying in the morning of games and leaving right after.
Not every player is down on MLS travel.
Veteran Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard, who has seen soccer travel on both sides of the Atlantic, says it’s just part of the job.
“It’s a business trip, that’s what it is … I don’t mind the travel. I sleep on the plane so it’s easy.”
“It’s a lot more fun to fly here than to fly there,” he said with a smile.