How MLS playoff teams keep momentum over international break

At 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, Nov. 26, Sporting Kansas City will kick off against the Houston Dynamo at Shell Energy Stadium in Southeast Texas, with the winner going to the Western Conference final. It will be the visitors' first game in 21 days, a full three weeks since their surprising 2-1 victory over St. Louis City in the conference semifinals.

For teams used to playing at least once -- and frequently twice -- a week, that's an extraordinarily long layoff, especially considering we're now deep into the postseason. For SKC head coach Peter Vermes, however, it's a welcome respite.

Sporting failed to win any of their first 10 games of the season, spending the next five months scrapping and clawing out of the hole they dug themselves. They only made the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, then had to win a play-in match against the San Jose Earthquakes for the right to play St Louis, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Six straight months of important matches will take a toll and, well, three weeks of downtime isn't the worst thing in the world.

"Getting this break is a little bit physical, but it's a lot of mental for us," Vermes said to ESPN. "Our games have been very, very pressurized, probably more internally than anything else, because we knew we had to get the points."

After their victory against St. Louis, SKC took Monday off, trained Tuesday and Wednesday, then Vermes gave his charges four days off to rest, recover and get ready to return. "It gives us that chance to just catch our breath for a moment, to take a little bit of a break and get ourselves recharged," he said.

In the Ohio capital, the Columbus Crew had 13 days between their Nov. 12 victory over Atlanta United and their Nov. 25 trip to Exploria Stadium to play Orlando City. For fitness coach Jules Gueguen, there's a delicate balance between a helpful break and a harmful one.

"We're 10 months into the season, so players have a lot in their backpacks, especially emotionally after three tense games with Atlanta," he said. "We need to have a little break, but you cannot give too much. Because if you give too much, the guys actually disconnect and especially physically, you're going to have a bit of a downside."

Gueguen and Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy gave his players a couple of days off after the Atlanta match as well as last weekend, then had a normal week of training in the lead-up to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Philadelphia Union had 17 days between a 1-0 victory over the New England Revolution and a date with FC Cincinnati. The coaching staff let the players have some free time, and Jack Elliott took advantage. The center-back played a little bit of pickleball and did a whole lot of nothing during time away from the team facilities.

"If you're on top of each other for such a long period of time, it can get a bit crazy," he said. "I think everyone managed to recharge and get away for a few days. Not seeing the same faces every day helps."

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

One issue beyond the lack of games is simply the sheer amount of time that teams will find themselves in stressful situations. Gueguen believes in the tapering strategy advocated by Iñigo Mujika, which calls for maintaining the intensity of training sessions but reducing their length near the end of the season. This can help keep players as fresh as possible, reducing load and, therefore (hopefully), injuries. The Crew, who needed results down the stretch to ensure homefield advantage in the quarterfinals, began tapering weeks ago, and they're still doing so.

"We've been doing it on a longer period than we usually do," Gueguen said. "We're kind of like stretching it now. This is the first time in my entire career we're tapering for that long." How much sharpness the squad lose in their attempts to maintain fresh legs remains to be seen.

There's also the issue of missing players due to the international break. Every remaining playoff team has players on duty for their countries, from Columbus's and SKC's two to the Union's seven. Ensuring that those guys return fit and ready adds another layer of complexity to the long layoff. Interestingly, Gueguen would rather his charges play in a match than sit. If they do take the field, he can get a better sense of the load on their body than if they do not.

"The communication is really important for us to maximize their exposure to some stimulus," he said. "When they come back, we don't have time. It's more of a question of freshness, of getting them ready to go and play the game."

Simply put, the break is not ideal. It's long for all remaining teams, twice as long for some than others. It's been an endless season that also included the addition of the month-long Leagues Cup, and this drawn-out playoff situation is one more thing to navigate.

Sporting Kansas City had momentum. They won a playoff game, then knocked off heavily favored St. Louis to reach the semifinals. Then, a long break. Rest might help; it also might not.

"It's playoffs, and the games always take on a different intensity," Vermes said. "We're going to have to find a way to manufacture that intensity as we lead into the final week prior to the game against Houston."

For the head coach, a veteran of the trials and tribulations of MLS and its strange rules and schedule, there's only so much you can do. "I've been through a lot of different scenarios in playoffs over the years. This is definitely a new one," Vermes said. "I try not to spend my time worrying about things that I truly don't have much control over.

"My energy is spent on just trying to make sure that I can create an environment where the guys can get prepared. You gotta manage it how you manage it."