Analyzing D.C. United's 2014 MLS Schedule

Bill Hamid will anchor D.C. United's retooled defense headed into 2014. - Bob Levey

With the MLS SuperDraft scheduled for next week, and preseason camp opening shortly thereafter, let's take a moment to break down D.C. United's 2014 MLS schedule to see what's in store for the Black-and-Red come Mar. 8th. Let's just say we should be thankful the season will ramp up slowly for the hometown team, because the last third of the season is going to be congested with big games.

Major League Soccer unexpectedly released the 2014 schedule late last year during Thanksgiving week. Since the 2013 MLS Cup was still to come at that point, and D.C. United was in the midst of starting its offseason retooling, Ben hit the highlights for us as other topics were more pressing. This week, however, with the Reentry Drafts behind us, and the MLS SuperDraft coming next week, we have time to see what this season's rebuilt D.C. United squad will face when they take the field on Mar. 8th against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium.

To get us started, here is D.C. United's 2014 regular season schedule.

MLS Round Date Home or Away Opponent Days Since Last Home Game Day of the Week Game Rating Potential Conflicts
1 8-Mar Home Columbus Crew Sat *** FFD 5 Mar
2 15-Mar Away LA Galaxy Sat ****
3 22-Mar Away Toronto FC Sat **
4 29-Mar Home Chicago Fire 21 Sat ***
5 5-Apr Home New England Revolution 7 Sat **
6 12-Apr Home New York Red Bulls 7 Sat ****
7 19-Apr Away Columbus Crew Sat **
8 26-Apr Home FC Dallas 14 Sat **
9 3-May Away Portland Timbers Sat ****
10 10-May Away Philadelphia Union Sat ****
11 17-May Home Montreal Impact 21 Sat ***
12 21-May Home Houston Dynamo 4 Wed ****
13 24-May Away New England Revolution Sat **
14 31-May Home Sporting Kansas City 10 Sat **** WC Release Date 26 May
15 7-Jun Home Columbus Crew 7 Sat ** WC Release Date 26 May
16 11-Jun Away Montreal Impact Wed *** WC Release Date 26 May
17 28-Jun Home Seattle Sounders 21 Sat **** WC 12 Jun - 13 Jul
18 5-Jul Away Toronto FC Sat * WC 12 Jun - 13 Jul
19 11-Jul Away San Jose Earthquakes Fri *** WC 12 Jun - 13 Jul
20 20-Jul Home Chivas USA 22 Sun *
21 30-Jul Home Toronto FC 10 Wed *
22 3-Aug Away Houston Dynamo Sun **** CCL
23 9-Aug Away Real Salt Lake Sat **** CCL
24 17-Aug Home Colorado Rapids 18 Sun *** CCL
25 23-Aug Away Sporting Kansas City Sat **** CCL
26 31-Aug Home New York Red Bulls 14 Sun **** CCL
27 6-Sep Away Vancouver Whitecaps Sat *** CCL, FFW 1-9 Sep
28 10-Sep Away New York Red Bulls Wed **** CCL
29 20-Sep Away Chicago Fire Sat *** CCL
30 27-Sep Home Philadelphia Union 27 Sat *** CCL
31 3-Oct Home Sporting Kansas City 6 Fri **** CCL
32 12-Oct Away Houston Dynamo Sun **** CCL, FFW 6-14 Oct
33 18-Oct Home Chicago Fire 15 Sat *** CCL
34 25-Oct Away Montreal Impact Sat ** CCL

Legend: CCL, CONCACAF Champions League; FFD, FIFA Fixture Date; FFW, FIFA Fixture Window; WC, World Cup

Here are my takeaways as we look deeper into the 2014 schedule.

1. The start of the 2014 season will be easier than the 2013 season (but also not as attractive). Last year, D.C. United had a tough and attractive start to the season, playing Houston, RSL, New York (twice), and Sporting all in the first six matches (and playing six total returning playoff teams in the first 10 matches). As we know, D.C. United went 1-4-1 during those first six matches (ironically beating RSL and drawing with New York), and then went on to a disastrous year. This year, the season starts more favorably for a team needing time to gel as it figures out all its new parts. In 2014, only three of the first six games are against returning playoff teams (LA, New England, and New York), and over the first 10 matches D.C. United will only face four returning playoff teams (add Portland to the teams already mentioned).

Regarding quality of the home schedule, I've rated each match in the schedule above using my own unofficial 4-star rating scheme. Based on the individual ratings, this year will see fewer marquee games and more "meh" games at RFK (see summary table below).

2013 Home Games 2014 Home Games
4 Stars 7 6
3 Stars 7 6
2 Stars 2 3
1 Star 1 2

The final three months of the season, however, starting at the beginning of August, promise a very tough and entertaining end to the season. Ironically, this is when D.C. United will start the group stages of the 2015 CONCACAF Champions League. By my count, during the final 13 MLS matches of the regular season from August through October, only the season-ending game at Montreal is less than 3 stars (and, if both teams are in the playoff race, the rating could easily be upgraded). But, goodness, a game on Oct. 25th in Montreal could be quite frigid.

2. Potential schedule conflicts abound; and August, September, and October will be very busy for D.C. United. Hat tip to Steven Goff for publishing his annual soccer calendar. From his master list, here are dates potentially affecting D.C. United in the preseason, regular season, or postseason.

- USMNT January Camp: 6 - 31 Jan 14
- USMNT Friendly vs. South Korea: 1 Feb 14
- FIFA Fixture Date: 5 Mar 14
- Mandatory Club Release Date for World Cup Players: 26 May 14
- World Cup dates: 12 Jun - 13 Jul 14
- CONCACAF Champions League group-stage games: Four games in Aug-Oct
- MLS All-Star Game: 6 Aug in Portland (vs Bayern Munich)
- FIFA Fixture Window: 1 - 9 Sep
- FIFA Fixture Window: 6 - 14 Oct
- FIFA Fixture Window: 10 - 18 Nov (will only affect MLS playoff teams)

Of course we all know the World Cup will likely affect D.C. United due to the loss of Eddie Johnson. But, we D.C. United fans will also be impacted by the loss of headliner visiting talent during some of the marquee games at RFK this season. To begin, the May 31st match against Sporting at home will see Kansas City without Graham Zusi and Matt Besler (as well as the other players they have who are currently on the periphery of the US Men's National Team if called up for the World Cup). Similarly, the Jun. 28th match at home against Seattle (two days after the World Cup group stage ends) will likely be without Clint Dempsey and Brad Evans (and almost certainly no EJ either, which is a shame because this is the match we all wanted to see).

As previously mentioned, D.C. United will begin CONCACAF Champions League play in August 2014. If last year's CCL group stage is a template, D.C. United will play four CCL games between August and October, two at RFK and two overseas. With D.C. United already scheduled for five regular season MLS games in August, four in September, and four in October, fixture congestion and tired legs will be a reality for the Black-and-Red. Additionally, if D.C. United were to make the US Open Cup finals again, they will play two more games during these three months as well. So, pulling it all together, United will play a minimum of 17 games (5.35 days/game) and a maximum of 19 games (4.79 days/game) during the 91 days of these three months. For this reason, don't be surprised if the Aug. 23rd regular season match at Sporting Kansas City (another CCL team) potentially gets moved to an early-season date. Other candidate games to move are the two during this period against New York (yet another CCL team); but, the Aug. 31st game at RFK (on NBCSN) and the Sep. 10th game at Red Bull Arena (on ESPN2) are much less likely (i.e. impossible) to move due to their national TV tie-ins.

3. Impact of the 2014 schedule on D.C. United's home attendance. Overall, the 2014 schedule is very similar to last year's when you look at what days of the week the 17 home games will be played on.

2013 Home Games 2014 Home Games
Saturday 11 11
Sunday 4 3
Wednesday 1 2
Friday 1 1

In the 2014 schedule, there is one more Wednesday night game (the worst night by far for attendance at RFK) and one fewer Sunday game than compared to last year. Because of this slight change, however, there is already a small reduction in average home attendance likely baked into the season since average home attendance will drop -1.67% over last year even if the same average number of fans show up each night of the week (projected average attendance of 13,418 in 2014 compared to 13,645 in 2013).

4. The impact of the uneven schedule. Major League Soccer enters its third season using the 34-game, unbalanced schedule in 2014. As a reminder, for Eastern Conference teams, this means they play every Western Conference team once (nine matches total; five on the road this season, and four at home), while playing home and away series with the other nine Eastern Conference teams (18 matches), and an additional "third game" against seven of their Eastern rivals (seven matches total; three on the road this season, and four at home). Below is the breakout of where D.C. United will play the Western Conference teams and their Eastern Conference "third games".

- Western Conference games on the road: LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver Whitecaps

- Western Conference games at RFK: FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders, Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids

- Eastern Conference "third games" on the road: Toronto FC, Houston Dynamo, Montreal Impact

- Eastern Conference "third games" at RFK: Columbus Crew, New York Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City, Chicago Fire

- Eastern Conference teams only played twice (no "third game"): New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union

A few notes from this view of the 2014 schedule:

- D.C. United will make four trips to the West Coast, plus the two international CCL trips. Travel fatigue will be an issue at times this year.

- On Jun. 7th (Round 15), D.C. United will play their "third game" against Columbus. On Jul. 30th (Round 21), D.C. United plays their "third game" against Toronto. Taking care of business in these six matches will set the foundation for success as they enter the tough and congested part of the schedule which begins in August.

- From Jun. 28th to Sep. 6th, D.C. United will play six of the Western Conference teams in their 11 matches over these 70 days.

- The final seven games are all against Eastern Conference rivals. Four of those are returning playoff teams (New York, Sporting, Houston, and Montreal, with Chicago twice and Philadelphia thrown in as well).

5. MLS and D.C. United continue not to take full advantage of holidays. I have to assume MLS and D.C. United have all the data to confirm a big Fourth of July match at RFK wouldn't be a big event. Or maybe the District has asked the team to avoid a game on the Fourth to help ease congestion on the Metro for all the events on the Mall. Whatever the reason, it just doesn't make sense to me. I propose (again) the following: D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union should join together to establish an annual match on the Fourth. Every year it would alternate between RFK and PPL Park, and it would have some cheesy marketing name like, "The Independence Derby", and it would have a trophy resembling the Constitution. And DC Washington would sing the National Anthem, and the visiting team would be given a thousand tickets, and the two fanbases would have a huge tailgate, and there would be fireworks, lots of fireworks. And it would be a sellout.

But, this annual game doesn't exist (yet), so, in 2014, D.C. United will play at Toronto on Jul. 5th. Makes perfect sense. And note, none of the Canadian teams are playing on Canada Day (Jul. 1st). To the league's credit, however, D.C. United will be playing New York on Sunday, Aug. 31st, the day before Labor Day. It has the potential to be a big crowd, but unfortunately, August is the time of year when Washington is a ghost town in a way I've never seen in other major cities, and this game will be on national TV. Do you think it can sell out? I hope so.

What are your takeaways from the 2014 schedule? Are you worried about the fixture congestion starting in August? How should D.C. United prioritize the three competitions they will be in this year, MLS, USOC, and CCL?

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