Hey UPSL, Ban Back to Backs
Sometimes when I write an article, I’m picking up thoughts and ideas from the twitter universe and knocking it into something that functions as an article. Sometimes, I draw from current events, maybe a big news story, something that if we ignored, we’d lose readers. But there’s another route to inspiration that is much closer to home. Sometimes, while sitting in the bleachers on some high school field, watching a club I either love or am interested in, I am struck with an idea that bounces around for a while until eventually I have to sit down and knock it out.
I’m a big fan and outspoken supporter of the Las Cruces New Mexico’s UPSL club, FC Grande. While I live in El Paso, I fell in love with the tiny club that formed two years ago in the small town about 45 minutes across the border into New Mexico. I made friends with the owner as he went through the process of planning and developing his idea. I’m proud to say I was at the first tryouts for the club and watched 60 young men on a dusty Las Cruces field push themselves for the chance to play for an amateur soccer side.
The first season I was at every match with a small band of supporters. We popped smoke, waved flags, yelled a lot. It was beautiful. We were drawing close to 250 fans a night that season. The local community was supporting the team and the team played well. We ended the season losing in the conference final to the juggernaut that is Sporting AZ FC, but the future seemed bright.
This season, we kicked off with a roster that added a lot of fresh talent and a new coach to lead the team. Everything felt positive. The schedule was delayed by the addition/exit of some clubs, but eventually things came together and we got the list of match dates. And here’s the rub.
While our conference is spread out, thanks to the inclusion of two clubs in Phoenix (a six-hour drive from Las Cruces) most of the clubs are clustered around the El Paso/Las Cruces area. So why our schedule included so many back to back matches, I do not understand. When I say back to back, I literally mean, one day to the next. FC Grande played matches (within two days) on 5/4 and 5/5, 5/17 and 5/19, 5/25 and 5/26, 6/14 and 6/15. That’s three times that they played matches on back to back days, sometimes with less than 18 hours between the matches. I understand that there is always logic behind the creation of schedule, but this logic is flawed as hell.
I think it’s safe to assume that scheduling comes down to several factors: 1. Field availability 2. Travel cost 3. Club coordination. There could be more, of course, but I’m applying a common sense approach to this. With a six hour drive between Las Cruces and Phoenix, I can understand the desire to schedule the matches in bunches to save money. But how does that explain the matches between Southwest FC and Las Cruces, which account for one of those long weekends?
I asked Matt Kahla, National Director of the UPSL, about how UPSL schedules are created. “The league sits down and talks with conference managers and the scheduling committee and from there we work backwards for National Champion, down to Semis, divisional playoffs, regular season.” With the delay of a club dropping out just before the release of the schedule, I can understand how the deadline of the National Playoffs could squeeze the conference calendar, but beyond that deadline, the league passes most of the responsibility to the conference itself. “The guidelines are pretty basic, teams are required to figure out their home dates and then the conference manager takes charge.” And the results aren’t always pretty, as this season proves.
While I listed some obvious factors in schedule making earlier, let’s add the UPSL’s playoff schedule as a fourth factor. Before I go on, I want to say those are all legitimate things to take into account. Budgets at this level are basically nil, so a trip to Phoenix with 20 people, hotels, food, gas, that’s a lot of money to spend. But there are other factors to consider as well.
Player Safety - While clubs can carry two squads, the more likely scenario is twenty players, with a decided drop off in the last five. Playing back to back matches for any player is a tough load and players without adequate rest are more injury prone. The UPSL is a training league, a chance for players to improve and move up, getting a serious injury could set them back a year or, in extreme situations, end a career. The cost to that player outweighs any financial savings for the clubs.
Fan Interest - I’m aware there are clubs that do not seem to care that no one is in their stands. I’ve been to some away matches where twenty people showed up and the team seemed to have accepted this as normal. However, if you’re trying to build a club with connections to the community, that is a destination for fans on a Saturday night, that becomes a fun place for families to attend, you CANNOT schedule back to back matches. People won’t sacrifice a weekend for a soccer team, particularly not families with children. FC Grande attendance has dropped by half because people won’t do two nights in a row - and why should they?
Player Performance - Tired players don’t play as well - they make mistakes, they make clumsy tackles, they lose their balance. It’s simply not fun for a player recovering from the night before to have to lace up and go back to the field the next night. These are amateurs and the league, its clubs, and its conference managers should be prioritizing their development.
For the record, Matt did say that league officials “hate when we have back to backs.” So here’s a solution, ban them. Make a mandatory 48 hours break between matches, with a caveat for weather or natural disaster. Let’s do what’s right for the players, the fans, and the level of play. Let’s continue to make a league that focuses on the well being of all involved and not only focuses on the bottom line.
And one other idea that was pitched to me by Joshua Duder when he read the piece. Why don’t the bigger national leagues, the UPSL and NPSL, attempt to negotiate discounts with hotel chains? Having a discount for your member clubs would be a massive win for traveling matches. For the hotel chains, there would be guaranteed room rentals, though discounted, and for the clubs it would allow them more flexibility around scheduling and make the costs of travel more reasonable.
I’m a fan, this is what I think.