With the Sounders facing three straight road games, I wanted to find out a little more about what basic travel issues are like for an MLS team.
So I had a conversation with Sounders team administration director Grant Clark this morning as part of a story I'll be running later in the week. But I wanted to share some of the basics from that interview here now (some of Clark's responses are edited here for length or clarity):
Airport security? They have to go through security. Sometimes the airport here at SeaTac now because they’re familiar with the team, they take us through as a group.
Commercial or charter? There are league restrictions as to how many charters you can use if the club decides that they do want to fly charter. And you’re allowed four legs during the regular season. That doesn’t include playoffs, that’s separate. (Seattle's first charter flight was U.S. Open Cup, next is Columbus to avoid connecting through Chicago).
Mixing with fellow-fliers: It’s a crackup. We’ve been down to L.A. a couple of times this year. There are kids and families, there are people who will come up to us while we’re waiting to board the plane and say, 'Is the Sounders going on this plane to LA?’ They get kind of excited. We’ve traveled with people going to the games and back. San Jose was that way: There was a lot of fans down there, and they’re just thrilled that they’re on the same plane as the team, and they’ll walk up and down the aisles and the guys will sign the shirts and scarves."
Dress code? We do have team attire when we travel. We let Kasey Keller and the senior players determine what they’d like to travel in. If it’s a hot destination sometimes they’ll do the shorts, but they’ll wear a team shirt. And we have a presentation suit from Adidas that they like to wear. It’s very comfortable for them.
First class or coach? They’re all free to upgrade to first class. One of the nice perks about the league is that the players are allowed to retain their frequent flier miles. (Upgrading is more common on cross-country trips.)
Window or aisle? The biggest hassle probably, because we do fly commercial, we don’t own the seat manifest. Some airlines are great to work with. Alaska works like crazy to accommodate us with windows and aisles. My taller player, I constantly have to fight for a little extra leg room. But it’s an issue. For example, to New England I still have a couple of staff guys in middle seats. So I take the grief, but it’s not my doing. Do you put Brian Schmetzer in the middle, or do you put a rookie in the middle? (Laughs). Maybe it depends on how he’s playing.
Hotel quality: We stay at a variety of different hotels depending on the market. It’s the same things with us here: In the off-season we put out a request-for-proposal from different properties. We try and hit a certain room rate. The league tries to negotiate -- 'By bringing a certain amount of teams in, what kind of a price can you give us on this and this and this? Can we get an upgrade for the general manager? Can we get an upgrade for the coach?' – those types of things. From what I’m hearing this year from players who have been around the league a little bit, they have improved in some of the cities, nicer hotels. The one in New Jersey, for example, used to be right next to Giants Stadium and it was right in the middle of a freeway off-ramp. Now we at Hoboken at a W Hotel, and it's terrific. We love the Fairmont down in San Jose, a very good hotel. The Torrance Marriott is absolutely fine – we’ve been down there several times – very close proximity to the airport and the stadium.
Roommates? We double up. The league pays for 15 rooms – we pool expenses and then they divvy the up among the 15 teams. But we travel with a slightly bigger staff than some teams. But then the team is on their nickel for everything above that. Everybody has a roommate. That’s not the case with every team in the league that has a designated player. Freddie (Ljungberg) has been great about roommates. They all double up, and I think they enjoy it, they enjoy the company. Part of my job is to help room good fits.
The hotel lobby: A lot of times that’s a fun time on the road: in the lobby before the go to a training session. If there’s fans traveling with the team, that’s a fun, looser time for interacting with the players, and they’ll pose for photos and stuff. Another issue that always comes up: They love their laptops. They always want to know what the Internet charges are at the hotel. And Fredy Montero has sweet-talked a few front-desk people into waiving his internet fee. But you’ll see them come down to the lobby – for a lot of hotels, internet access is free in the lobby – they hang out down in the lobby with their laptops. Compared to my first time around with San Jose back in ’96, there are a lot more people on the road I think for Seattle games than there ever were with San Jose. There are always people at the hotel. A lot of people know where the visiting team stays, so it’s a destination for people checking out the team.
Curfews? There are not hard and fast curfews with us. But they are always reminded the importance of them being fresh and alert and making good decisions for the benefit of themselves and the team. But there’s no bed-checks, there’s no hard-and-fast room checks like in the NFL. We’re not quite like that. We rely on the players to be responsible. It’s their job, and if they’re not taking care of themselves they’re not going to be around long.
Getting to the stadium: The buses for the most part have been great. Some of the bus drivers are real characters. For example there’s a guy in Toronto named Les; and he drives every single profession sports team in Toronto -- all the hockey teams and all the soccer teams – and he’s got great stories and it’s a lot of fun. The staff sits up front, players are in the back. Certain players like to sit right behind the staff, and our Hispanic players like to sit in the far back for some reason. Before the team moves anywhere I have to do a head count and more sure everybody is accounted for, and (Jhon Kennedy Hurtado or Osvaldo Alonso) is always hiding in a seat or hiding in a bathroom or they try to mess with me. It’s kind of funny, but they’re the practical jokers, they enjoy a good laugh. We love coming into the stadium. We’ll see Sounders fans tailgating with flags and scarves and jerseys, and we love honking the bus horn and waive while the other people are flipping us off.
Bottom line:It’s good. They’re a good bunch and there have been no major complaints about the hotels, the meals.
(That does seem to be the case, judging from the couple of players I spoke to today. And that's different from the Galaxy's reaction to hotels and travel as depicted in "The Beckham Experiment," which portrays Beckham sitting up in first class, and the hotels as a grade down -- right down to that infamous hotel Clark mentions near Giant Stadium. I'll have more from players in the coming story.)