By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (May 7, 2012) US Soccer Players — There won’t be a magical moment when talking about the Major League Soccer table starts to make sense. The unbalanced schedule, the staggered games, and the off weeks make comparisons within and across conferences difficult. Yet there are some not exactly hasty conclusions that can already be made courtesy of the team with the worst record in the League. It’s an old point that’s already made its mark in 2012, the MLS version of parity.
What we’re talking about with MLS parity is an almost insistence of pulling good teams down. It’s rarely about pulling bad teams up. This is a style of play argument that shows up week after week. A good team can’t do enough to take three points against a bad team, and all of a sudden there’s an argument that the bad team wasn’t that bad at all.
The competitive reality is that they really are that bad, but the conditions within MLS don’t easily allow for the good teams to put space between themselves and the rest of the League. This is already evident this season and it’s a result of two things.
The first is over-expansion, something that we’re not supposed to focus on because the recent expansions have done so well at the gate. Unless you’re trying to double up teams in Carson, tickets sell. We’re supposed to focus on that as the reason for the rising value of MLS expansion slots along with the expansion teams that have also been successful on the field. With that in mind, it’s seen as a benefit that teams that didn’t exist at MLS level a couple of seasons earlier can make the playoffs and even end up in contention. It helps make the sell, letting potential investor-operators know they won’t be propping up the bottom half of the league season after season. Chivas USA is the example against the attendance model and Toronto against the competitive, but both of these teams can be treated as special cases.
The second is playing it safe. Too many MLS coaches treat their squad and the schedule as an exercise in risk management. This is not particular to MLS or even professional soccer, but within this League it creates the illusion of a safety net. Without relegation to worry about and no coach getting fired for missing out or under-performing in the CONCACAF Champions League or US Open Cup, there are enough coaches willing to make do. That means pushing just enough to make sure their teams isn’t completely out of the playoffs by the last month of the regular season. It’s soccer by way of explanation, and we’ve seen teams end up winning conference titles and advancing in the playoffs by doing just that. It’s a successful season if you ignore wide stretches where teams squandered points and didn’t take the risks that normally separate good from bad.
What we have is an adjustment on the risk reward model that in most leagues normally pushes some clubs to try and fail. Parity becomes a catch-all to explain why this isn’t happening as often as should be expected in Major League Soccer. It’s also why so much is made in the moment of the few teams willing to try anything different. Sacrificing a defender for an attacking player becomes a big deal in MLS. So does benching a starter. Combine that with a ‘coach knows best’ way of thinking in a lot of MLS cities, and it’s understandable that the criticisms directed at mediocrity aren’t very loud.
After all, any MLS team could pull a Toronto. Their ‘work in progress’ is almost unique to MLS, and certainly for an expansion team. The original expansion class had produced a champion and one of the better teams in the League when Miami was contracted. Chivas USA won the West three years into their existence. The more recent expansion classes haven’t exactly disappointed.
Meanwhile, Toronto can’t pull it together. They’ve spent, a quick distinction among MLS clubs. They’ve looked outside of North America for coaches. They’ve brought in consultants. They’ve had to reassure a devoted fan base again and again that things will change in a city where that’s not uncommon.
Why has it been so tough for Toronto? Too much tinkering, an inability to build a core that carries the club from season to season, and now another Toronto coach probably wondering what he’s gotten himself into. Are any of these really reasons? Maybe, maybe not, but they speak to a club that decided to push quickly and suffered almost immediately. What they’ve won is the reputation of what not to do in Major League Soccer. That might not be fair.
Against their record, Toronto remains a club worth watching to see if they can figure things out. They’ve given glimpses of a team that’s more than just the MLS model of competitive. In fact, they’re one of the few clubs to really try something different. Even keeping results in mind, that’s laudable in this League.
Even when it mostly turns out for the worst, Toronto continues to create interesting times. In a League setup to reward the average, that has to count for more than those teams that move through the calendar without really winning or losing much of anything.
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