As I sat watching NYCFC stars Villa, Lampard and Pirlo play against Crew SC, I thought to myself: “How the hell did the Crew go from MLS Cup runner-ups, to second from bottom in the East with basically the same team?” Then I followed it up with: “How did NYCFC go from missing the playoffs by 12 points and being tied for the most goals allowed in the league, to top of the East this year with basically the same team?”
On the surface you could say the Crew losing Kei Kamara in May was a huge blow, but they stunk before he left so that can’t be an excuse for the fact they have only won two league game since May. And what about Portland? They win the Cup last year and with the same team are barely holding onto their playoff hopes in the West.Embed from Getty Images
I posed the why-do-the-Crew-stink question to my 12-old son Ezra as we sat on the cold, wet benches of Mapfre during the NYCFC match. He looked up from his iPhone after finding a Pokestop and said: “Maybe it’s our new uniforms… last year’s were better.” Not very scientific, but he was onto something. One little change can make all the difference in MLS.
There is a randomness to Major League Soccer: One year a team is good and the next they suck unless you are the LA Galaxy. In 2008, the Red Bulls lost MLS Cup to the Crew (who missed the playoffs the previous season) and the following season plummeted to last place, registering a franchise-worst five wins. It would be like Chelsea getting into the top four one year and then getting relegated the next. It’s never going to happen. And how do you explain the 1998 season? Yes, MLS was in its infancy and still had whacky rules like getting a point for a shootout loss, but a first year expansion team winning MLS Cup (Chicago Fire)? Crazy town!
MLS is a unique league and willing to experiment – thank God they got rid of the shootout. But what makes it a soccer league with no rival is team parity. This means pretty much every team in the league can go from bottom dwellers to penthouse champagne sippers in one season.
In other countries it’s a foregone conclusion who wins the league. Supporters of small market teams like Real Salt Lake, Columbus Crew SC and Sporting Kansas City – all MLS Cup winners – feel like they have a chance to win the Cup every year. In MLS’ first 20 seasons, ten different teams have won MLS Cup.Embed from Getty Images
That’s variety and a huge percentage when compared to the Premier League over the same period: Five different winners with Manchester United’s 10 titles leading the way. In La Liga, only four teams have won the title with Barcelona snatching 10 over the last 20 years. Forget about the Bundesliga – Bayern Munich has won 13 titles in the last 20 season, which is pretty boring for the other sides.
The NFL, one of the most popular leagues in the world thrives on parity. Over the past 20 season, ten different teams have won the Super Bowl. Like MLS, the NFL is hugely successful because every market has a chance. Last year the Jacksonville Jaguars won five of their 16 games and are now tipped to make the playoffs this year.
It will take a long time for MLS to reach the heights of the NFL. Single entity, salary cap, the college draft, Designated Players and rapid expansion have all contributed to competitive balance in MLS. Detractors say rapid expansion is diluting the talent pool – the level of defenders is shockingly poor in some teams – and it’s starting to feel like the rich are getting richer (see NYCFC and LA Galaxy). But when a second-to-last place team like Seattle can sign a player like Nicolas Lodeiro midseason, win three and draw two with him in the lineup to catapult themselves into playoff contention, MLS is doing something right. No other league in the world can make a change midseason that changes the fortunes of a team that quickly.
Fragile? Yes, maybe the rosters are thin and maybe it’s a little embarrassing that one major move can impact a team, but who cares. I bet the caffeinated crazies up in Seattle are happy that MLS is so topsy-turvy.
So as the Crew-NYCFC game winds down, with Columbus down 3-2 in the 95th minute, I nudge my son and point to the 2008 MLS Cup banner and say, “Do you think we’ll ever win another one?” As my son opens his mouth to bestow some wisdom, Ethan Finlay slams home the equalizer at the end of stoppage time to send our soggy bottoms bolting from our seats. I hug my son like a squishy sponge and yell, “we’re back!”
Suddenly a team with only three wins all season has life and the playoff hopes are still alive. It’s so MLS.