I spent the last three weeks doing the depressing work of researching Orlando City's injuries in the club's first three MLS seasons. I learned from a discussion with former Orlando Sentinel beat writer Alicia DelGallo that the MLS does not require clubs to publish injury information, and that explains why their injury report for the MLS fantasy soccer site is always wrong.
Last Friday night, I attended the Soccer Ball and had a chance to talk face-to-face with a number of club players, coaches, and staff--including some of the training staff. I came prepared with my research and I told them my concern and distress that it seems we have so many injuries.
Coaching Staff Insight
I am not sure that they managed to walk me completely off the ledge. I did gain more insight not only into the team's injury history and the league's injury reporting policies. I first talked to a member of the technical staff for the MLS side who has been involved in MLS for many years. He told me that at one time MLS was very strict in requiring every team in the league to disclose every injury, and they had a grading system very much like the NFL with players listed as questionable, doubtful, unavailable for the next match, or on a longer-term recovery trajectory. Clubs were required to report this every week to the MLS, and it was very well documented.
That policy subsequently changed. The gentleman I spoke to did not know why, and I can only speculate two reasons--both which have to do with money. The more sanitized reason the league may not want clubs to report injuries is to discourage illegal gambling through offshore betting sites on league matches. Indeed, there are European sites that exist primarily for sportsbook purposes that have far more detailed data on players across every league in Europe and even in MLS than what the league's own statistics pages offer. The more nefarious reason the league may not want clubs to report injuries is for ticket sales and TV revenues. In a league where there are still relatively few big-name stars sprinkled across the roster of each team, those individual players are big fan draws. If the league announced every time one of those stars was going to miss a game, it might dissuade some casual fans from buying tickets or tuning into the match on TV. I'm not accusing the league of putting its own profits before the right of fans to know who's available and who isn't, but I'm definitely saying there's something that stinks about their current policy.
Training Staff Insight
Later in the evening, I spoke to a member of the training staff. Because of the lack of required reporting, he does not have any exact numbers across the league, but the gentleman I spoke to is convinced that Orlando City is not near the top of the league list in terms of injuries. I talked to him about the spike in 2016 my research had shown, and he explained this was likely due to players having to adapt to a different training regimen introduced mid-season. Coach Heath's staff had one philosophy of training, while Coach Kreis's staff follows a different philosophy. Players whose bodies had adapted to one regimen had to adapt to a new one in the middle of the season, and that additional strain could help explain the increased rates of matches missed from injuries that year.
Then I explained how it concerned me that MLS injury rates seem higher than those in the NFL. Imagine if the Dallas Cowboys or New England Patriots had half the starters on the roster miss a game due to injuries. ESPN would go into complete meltdown from the fan outrage over that. And the trainer reminded me of something I well know but hadn't considered. In the NFL it is standard procedure for trainers to give players pre-game injections of painkillers when they have sprained ankles or twisted knees so they can go out and play with those injuries. Likewise, it is not uncommon to see players on the lines in the NFL wearing casts over broken wrists or broken arms. MLS allows for no such policies or masking of injuries to joints or soft tissues.
I'm not completely convinced to step away from the ledge yet, but these conversations did provide me some context for the injuries that my knee-jerk fan outrage kept me from considering initially. I'll be tracking injuries more closely this season than I have in past years and see how we are trending throughout the season.