Sounders FC

Sounders face travel blues

Unless Grant Clark was able to work a little trip-planning magic, Brian Schmetzer faces a traveler’s nightmare today: a cross-country flight in a middle seat.

Schmetzer is the top assistant coach for Seattle Sounders FC, which flies out this morning for its Saturday game at New England. And Clark is the team administration director who is responsible for getting them there.

“I take the grief, but it’s not my doing,” Clark said. “Do you put Brian Schmetzer in the middle, or do you put a rookie in the middle?”

Clark laughs and answers his own question: “Maybe it depends on how he’s playing.”

There is no such dilemma in the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball, where charter flights are the rule. But cost-conscious Major League Soccer restricts its clubs to no more than four charter flights per season.

The Sounders’ only charter so far was to the U.S. Open Cup final in Washington, D.C. And they’ll fly charter again next week to Columbus, Ohio, so they can avoid changing planes in Chicago.

But they’re flying commercial today. And that means some guy heading east on a business trip may find himself climbing over Kasey Keller to get to his seat. And some kid flying home after visiting relatives may find himself sitting next to Freddie Ljungberg.

As Ljungberg will point out, it wasn’t this way in the English Premier League.

“It’s a major difference,” he said. “In England, with Arsenal, we go private everywhere. We go to a private airstrip to a private plane and then you go to the hotel. It’s very different here. But I knew that when I signed, and I’m trying to get used to it. But it’s very, very different.”

Once the Sounders land, they will bus to their hotel: Renaissance Boston Hotel & Spa at Patriots Place, an upper-end Marriott property. And while MLS players have some issues with their travel conditions, no one associated with the Sounders voiced complaints about the quality of the hotels.

“The Sounders are definitely on the upper echelon,” MLS veteran James Riley said. “They’re definitely setting the standard. They definitely take care of us. The fact that we chartered to the Open Cup and stayed at the Ritz (Carlton) is unbelievable.”

Clark said that during the offseason, the team puts out a request for bids from various hotels. The league also tries to use its clout to negotiate better rates for multiple teams, while perhaps snagging room upgrades for the general manager and head coach.

The league allows only 15 rooms for a club’s traveling party. So, players share rooms.

“Everybody has a roommate,” Clark said. “That’s not the case with every team in the league that has a designated player. Freddie’s been great about roommates. They all double up; and I think they enjoy it, they enjoy the company. … I’m always getting feedback from the players about, ‘Hey I enjoyed rooming with so-and-so. Could I room with him again?’ There’s been no major issues at all.”

Riley, who is the Sounders’ representative to the MLS Players Union, agrees: The hotel situation is fine. However, there are other issues on the players’ wish list as they begin negotiating a new contract with the league.

“One thing that we want is for teams to be able to charter (whenever) they want to,” Riley said. “That’s restricted by MLS. … We’re definitely working on that for sure. Especially in Seattle. We travel such far distances and we actually do have guys in middle seats, and that can affect performance.”

Riley also said the players want to change the way their meal money is allocated. Now, players get up to $50 a day. But it’s counted as $8 for breakfast, $12 for lunch or $30 for dinner; and if there is a team meal at the hotel, that amount is deducted. If that meal is dinner, that means the players get just $20 to cover breakfast and lunch – a challenge in such expensive places as New York, Los Angeles or Boston.

The players want the MLS contract to mirror that of the United States national team: a straight $50.

But for the most part, the Sounders and their coaches say they’re well taken care of on the road, which is especially useful for a team tucked away in the Northwest that will travel a league-high 46,898 miles this season.

And if MLS travel is something of a step down from the English Premier League, it’s a significant step up for those with roots in the United Soccer Leagues.

“I remember at certain road trips, with (general manager Adrian Hanauer) in his office looking for flights and trying to group 18 tickets together at a reasonable rate and all that stuff,” said Schmetzer, a veteran of MLS, USL and the North American Soccer League. “Whereas here, cost is certainly an issue, (but) taking care of the players becomes more valuable than just saving a few bucks.”

And as for that middle seat?

“Listen, there’s a pecking order in everything,” Schmetzer said. “The big man (coach Sigi Schmid), he’s first. The rest of us are second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth: Sigi, then the team, and the rest of us. We’re OK with it.”

Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808

don.ruiz@thenewstribune.com

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