The sold-out flight is already 90 minutes behind schedule by the time Galaxy forward Alan Gordon begins lugging his carry-on bag up the crowded aisle to seat 18C in coach on American Airlines Flight 2462 from Los Angeles to Dallas.
A dozen rows away, teammate Landon Donovan is wedged into a middle seat, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap in a vain attempt to avoid recognition.
The Galaxy may be Major League Soccer’s premier franchise, one with a record five championships and a Hall of Fame roster of coaches and players. But on the 2 1/2-hour trip the Galaxy took Friday, the team endured the same kinds of delays, uncomfortable seats and crowded cabins that have made business travel more pain than pleasure.
“We’ve dealt with baggage delays. We’ve dealt with flight delays,” said Zack Murshedi, who handles the Galaxy’s travel arrangements. “We don’t get any special treatment.”
That’s largely a problem of MLS’ own making, since it is the only major professional sports league in the U.S. whose teams don’t fly charter. And as MLS continues to expand, many say the rigors of commercial travel have become too demanding.
“It’s time for our league to get into the modern days of professional sports,” said Bruce Arena, the Galaxy’s coach and general manager. “Travel impacts the competition.”
The Galaxy’s 17 regular-season road games will require the team to fly more than 38,000 miles in 2016, farther than 22 Major League Baseball teams traveled — on charter flights — this year.
Three MLS teams — Vancouver, Seattle and Houston — will fly more than 40,000 miles, with 16 of Vancouver’s flights including connections.
Arena says that’s a big reason why road teams have won just 60 of 316 MLS games this season, a winning percentage of 19%. Portland, the defending MLS Cup champion, is winless in 16 road games, and two other teams have won just once.
Yet the league continues to cite competitive balance to explain why it limits teams to four charter flights a year, an exemption most teams, including the Galaxy, save for the playoffs.
If teams were free to make their own travel arrangements, the league fears, deep-pocketed franchises such as the Galaxy and New York City FC, or teams like the Timbers and Seattle Sounders, who have sponsorship deals with airlines, would have an unfair advantage. Cost is also a factor.
The Galaxy, for example, paid about $21,000 to take 35 people to Dallas, including seven who flew first class – among them Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard and Coach Arena. That’s about a quarter of the price of a cut-rate charter flight. Multiply that by 17 road games for each of the 20 teams and MLS — which pays for 25 economy airline tickets, 15 hotel rooms and buses on every road trip — could see its travel budget grow by more than $20 million.
“Everything with us is about what we need to do to get better. How do we raise the quality of play? How do we invest more in our academies? Everything has got to go into the pot, you’ve got to make your decisions,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said earlier this season. “So our teams have got to decide whether or not charter travel is a bigger priority than perhaps investing in the academy programs to make players better. All of that has got to get squeezed into an affordable budget so we can continue to succeed as a league.
“Charter travel is less of a priority than investing in academy programs.”
But cost isn’t the only difference between charter and commercial flights.
The NHL’s Kings, who are owned by AEG, the same company that owns the Galaxy, travel in a custom Boeing 757 with first-class seats throughout. The Angels and Dodgers charter their trips through United Airlines, with Dodgers flights catered by Whole Foods. In all three cases, players never touch their luggage, with team buses delivering them directly to the tarmac where they go through a cursory security before boarding.
Charters also fly on the team’s schedule, not an airline’s. So while the Kings, Angels and Dodgers — and the USC and UCLA football teams, which also charter their flights — can be home hours after a road game, the Galaxy must wait until the next day.
“We lose a training day,” said Arena, whose team arrived at their Dallas hotel less than 24 hours before Saturday’s kickoff. “It impacts recovery and, again, it impacts the competition.”
Donovan said the league is paying an even higher price in prestige by sticking with commercial flights.
“There’s a perception and an image,” he said. “We’re on a Southwest flight to Kansas City and a lady in front of us said, ‘Why are you guys flying Southwest?’ So if we want to be Major League Soccer, not minor league soccer, and we want to be like the others sports, eventually we have to get there.”
Until that happens Arena has asked his players not to wear any Galaxy gear to the airport.
“I’m embarrassed that we travel that way. I don’t think it helps the reputation of our league,” said Arena, who, as coach, moved the U.S. national team from commercial to charter flights more than a decade ago. “I try to keep it as quiet as possible.”
The players have found their own ways to remain anonymous.
“When we get on airplanes people are like, ‘What are you guys?’ ” Murshedi said. “Some of the guys will be like, ‘We’re a boy band.’ ”
There are physical costs as well. Last season, Gordon had to be helped off a plane with a back issue after a long flight in an uncomfortable seat. Defender Ashley Cole developed a similar injury on the Galaxy’s first trip this season. After the team boarded a commercial flight for a short trip to Denver, the plane was held on the tarmac for two hours and Cole’s back locked up.
A trainer tried stretching him out in the narrow aisle but Cole missed the game, which the Galaxy lost.
“It’s difficult to sit in those tight seats,” said Cole, who rarely flew to league games during 17 seasons in England and Italy. “And you never know who you’re going to sit next to. You can’t really sleep on their shoulder. So you’ve just got to take it.
“It’s something that maybe MLS should look at, with chartering flights. If you want elite athletes to come here, I think you’re going to have to change that.”
In fact, travel is frequently the first thing foreign-born players mention when asked about the challenges of soccer in the U.S.
“You could have a three-hour plane journey the day before the game and back the next morning,” said Irish international Kevin Doyle, in his second year with the Colorado Rapids. “Your body’s obviously very sore. That’s tough. You’re just not used to it.”
Speaking of surprises, the Galaxy hit an unexpected snag on the way back from Dallas on Sunday when an American Airlines baggage handler refused to accept the team’s equipment en masse. So each player had to retrieve a leather bag with soiled uniforms and cleats and check them in one at a time.
At least the plane was on time. Last year, the team’s flight out of Dallas was delayed eight hours. On Mother’s Day.
On Sunday the players joined the general boarding line at 10:40 a.m., less than 12 hours after their sixth consecutive road game without a win. Defender A.J. DeLaGarza and midfielder Ema Boateng settled into row 15, sitting on either side of a passenger traveling with a dog. The seat in front of Boateng quickly reclined, making the tight space even tighter.
One row back, Gordon — one of the Galaxy’s biggest players at 6 feet 1 and 190 pounds — settled gingerly into an aisle seat, hoping to coax his balky back through another 2 1/2-hour flight. But the grind of commercial travel probably pains Murshedi more than the players. So after shepherding 35 people and a half-ton of baggage onto the plane, he confessed to a recurring daydream.
“I think about it every day,” he said of ditching commercial flights. “Whenever I’m at the airport, I think about chartering.”