On some level, CONCACAF Champions League is supposed to be a reward for a well-played season. The tournament gives MLS teams a chance to see where they stack up against the continent's best.
There is, of course, an opportunity cost as well. For teams that that must play a qualifier before the group stage, it can mean up to eight extra games and tens of thousands of extra air miles. This extra wear and tear can tax even a deep team; it can be downright ruinous for a more shallow team.
FC Dallas seems to finding this all out the hard way.
As the Toros prepare to play the Chicago Fire on Wednesday night, they are a team that is a mere shadow of the one that went on a 12-2-4 run after losing last year's league MVP David Ferreira and was making a run at the Suppoters' Shield with a points per match of 1.73. While the MLS Cup playoffs are nothing if not a way to salvage a season, on their current form it's hard to see Dallas recovering.
Since opening their CCL season during CCL qualifying against Alianza on July 28, Dallas has claimed just seven points in 10 matches. Currently, FCD are riding a four-match MLS losing streak in which they have not scored a single goal. If you expand the scope to all competitions, the Toros have claimed just one point in their past eight and been outscored 13-4.
The cause for these struggles is probably any combination of things, but it would seem fool-hardy to ignore the increased workload as a major contributing factor. Dallas has played 18 matches -- including one friendly -- during this 76-day span. They have been to almost all corner of the continent, touching down in Costa Rica, Canada, Seattle and New England.
In MLS games following CCL dates, Dallas has gone 2-5-0 and posted a -4 goal-difference. None of the other four MLS teams competing in CCL are worse in either area. Both figures represent significant declines from all their other games, where the Toros are 11-6-7 with a +6 goal-difference.
The poster-child for this workload -- and the subsequent struggles -- has been Brek Shea. The one-time frontrunner for MVP has seen his production drop significantly as his playing time has increased.
Including national team duty, Shea has played in 20 matches and logged 1,618 minutes since July 28. That includes six appearances and 480 minutes for the United States national team, as well as 45 minutes he played against Toronto FC in a CCL match that was ultimately abandoned and replayed in full the following day. He has been forced to travel all over the continent, and has even played in Belgium.
While no official records exist measuring every minute for every player, it stands to reason that no one has played more during this time than Shea. As a point of comparison, the Seattle Sounders have played more competitive matches than any other MLS team during that period (19), and no one on their team can match Shea's work load. That includes goalkeeper Kasey Keller (1,530 minutes), as well as Fredy Montero (1,338) and Osvaldo Alonso (1,316).
Whether or not playing time is the ultimate cause, there's no denying that Shea's product has dipped considerably. Prior to this run of games, he had nine goals and an assist in 1,855 minutes of MLS play. Since then, he's scored just once and registered two assists in 1,093 minutes in FC Dallas' competitive matches.
FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman can only be blamed so much for all of this. To his credit, he has juggled his lineups enough to give 17 players at least five MLS starts (just two fewer than Sounders, who have been lauded for their lineup juggling). Missing Ferreira has also limited his options, and he has leaned heavily on Shea, Marvin Chavez and Daniel Hernandez, all of whom have played at least 520 minutes in non-MLS competition. After Shea was somewhat forced into action on Tuesday against Honduras, Hyndman has indicated he will try to give his star left midfielder a day off for Wednesday's game against the Fire.
The unfortunate reality is that Shea is unlikely to get much more rest after that. Even though FC Dallas is virtually locked into a wild-card playoff spot, their recent poor run of form is hardly the way they want to go into the playoffs. Hyndman will understandably want to keep his best players in top form and balancing time off this late in the season is hardly easy.
For more on FC Dallas' season be sure to check out Big D Soccer.