After losses to Venezuela and Mexico in the group stage of the Copa America Centenario, Uruguay—though eliminated—managed to save their blushes against Jamaica last night, winning 3-0. After several days crisscrossing America, what they didn’t manage to get was much rest.
For them, and many others participating in the Copa America Centenario, the extensive travel between group stage games may have had a direct impact on their results on the pitch.
Uruguay, a side that came in with hopes of potentially winning the tournament, opened their group stage games in Glendale, Arizona at the University of Phoenix Stadium on June 5th. They then flew 2,392 miles to Philadelphia for their next match on June 9th, just four days later. When that match was over, they hopped on another plane and flew 2,902 miles back west to Santa Clara, where they finished up their tournament with a game at Levi’s Stadium against Jamaica , another four days removed from their previous match. They traveled a total of 5,294 miles in a span of 9 days, while playing 3 games.
If you think that sounds extreme, Bolivia opened the tournament at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on June 6th. Their next match was on June 10th at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA. They finish up tonight at Century Link Field in Seattle. When that game is over, they will have traveled 6,174 miles over the course of the 9 day group stage. None of this matters now as they’re already eliminated, bottom of their group. Paraguay, another team who had hopes of progressing deep into the tournament, have had to travel 5,211 miles. Haiti covered 4,161 miles.
Of these teams, all but Uruguay have finished bottom of their group. All four teams also lead their group in total miles traveled during the group stage.
While travel is obviously part of any major international football tournament and is not the sole reason some of these teams have struggled, the Copa America results do raise questions about the sustainability and fairness of this kind of format.
Players do not often play three matches in the span of nine days at the club level, with squad rotation and rest for stars a key component of lineup selection. When it comes to national team play, however, the situation is very different. National team coaches, and those who have a say in team selection, do not have to consider an entire eight month season when picking their XI, but instead only three games in which results are critical. The United States, for example, used the same starting XI for all three games during group play.
This, combined with heavy travel and a short turnaround on game times, puts players under an exhausting level of stress. Players like Edinson Cavani of Uruguay and Antonio Sanabria of Paraguay, who just recently finished up a long club season, have been asked to travel over five thousand miles and play three games in the span of nine days, a heavy burden in a sport that already asks so much from these athletes.
The trend, revealed in the table above, is clear. A tournament held across a nation as large geographically as the United States, with stadiums selected from either coast, poses a serious issue for teams who have to play multiple games in a short span. These players simply are not equipped to undergo the workload that these short international tournaments demand, even before you factor in the cross country travel. The teams who have traveled more, are generally playing worse. It is not hard to see a direct connection.
Scheduling may be something for the United States to look into (among many other issues that have arisen throughout the tournament) if they are to host another major soccer event in the coming years. At the very least, some measure of balance between teams in terms of distance traveled will level out the playing field. With teams like Mexico traveling a little more than one third of the distance Uruguay covered, despite being in the same group, there is clearly a discrepancy that needs to be addressed.
Teams who have been asked to travel the most during group stage games have all been eliminated before the knockout round. It may not tell the entire story, but it surely played a part. Uruguay and Paraguay should have performed better individually and as teams at this tournament—that is undoubtedly true. But after looking at what these players have been asked to do, the schedule makers for the Copa America Centenario need to perform better next time around as well.