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Four ways to remedy the blight of short benches

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The data shows it is rare for Seattle to only put out 17 players, as they did against Colorado.

During the last regular season game (a road win over the Rapids), the Seattle Sounders didn’t have 18 healthy players. The combination of suspension, international duty, injury and a roster with unfilled spots meant that Brian Schmetzer’s substitute options were limited.

In an interesting twist, the club could not ink any of their S2 players to a short-term contract because they did not meet the requirements for an Extreme Hardship Call-up.

Extreme Hardship Call-ups

Clubs may add players to their roster in cases of "Extreme Hardship." Extreme Hardship exists when an MLS club has:

fewer than four available outfield substitutes (less than 14 outfield players available) OR has fewer than two goalkeepers available.

MLS Soccer

It sucked. But it was also highly atypical of Garth Lagerwey-run teams. In fact, it was only the second time the Sounders have had a short bench since 2015. Back on March 29, 2015 they also were one player short; that was also during an international window.

Sounder at Heart contributor DMP looked at every gameday roster for the regular season for 2015, 2016 and 2017, up until the midweek break. A total of 69 gameday rosters were short a total of 90 players. Only twice were benches down to the old 2008 standard of 15 total players. Neither time was an Extreme Hardship Call-up made, although there have been hardship signings of keepers.

It turns out that short benches are not entirely related to international windows, or even to the US playing on non-FIFA dates. Only 42 percent of player shortages were due to that, with a spike for the Copa America Centenario. Another 30 percent of player shortages are related to the odd timing of the primary transfer window. With a window that doesn’t close until May, rosters can be short early in the season as teams try to figure out who should be their final couple of pieces.

As stated, last Tuesday was Seattle’s second match without a full bench in the past three seasons. The Colorado Rapids had the most shortages over that period. On twelve dates in the sampled set they were short players. They are one of two teams to drop all the way down to 15 on a gameday roster. D.C. United were short nine times. Orlando City SC and Sporting Kansas City both fell short on seven occasions.

LA and TFC (those “big clubs”) failed to hit 18 three and two times, respectively.

This is not a Seattle problem. It may be an MLS problem. It could probably be avoided by:

  • Moving the primary transfer window up a couple weeks.
  • Incentivizing more reserve signings.
  • Avoiding more international dates.
  • Expanding the extreme hardship rules to be in effect when teams are down to 16 outfield players, rather than 14.

Two of those suggestions give more opportunity for young players within an organization. One of them helps fans see more talent on the field in general. Moving the transfer window up would help to ensure that signings are integrated into their team faster.

These are suggested changes that don’t just impact the negative perception created by a team that is unable to reach the limit of 18 players on the gameday roster, but also improve the league in the short term (the best players would absent less frequently) and in the long term (prospects would get more training time at a higher level).

Yes, there is a cost to avoiding international dates. Several markets cannot bear the burden of playing midweek. There are also costs to signing young talents that are a few years away from contributing at the MLS level, although these are smaller.

For the sake of perception, development and marketing, the right thing for the league to do is find ways to fill out gameday 18s as often as possible.