By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (July 18, 2014) US Soccer Players – If parity were perfect, MLS would be a very boring league indeed. Perfect parity implies a collection of exactly even teams, battling against each other without any real advantages on either side from game-to-game and matchup-to-matchup. If parity were perfect, MLS would be a league of stalemates, producing draw after draw after draw. Perfect parity would make for a lot of tiebreakers at the end of the season with playoff places on the line.
Luckily, that’s not how MLS parity works. While there are rules in place to make sure no one team leaps out far ahead of the pack and dominates proceedings, teams perform across a wide range at any given point in the season.
Over the course of an MLS season, however, parity typically pulls teams together… eventually. Such is the case in the Eastern Conference at the midway point, where the ebb and flow of the form of teams from the top the near the bottom has jumbled the division into a lump of teams all fighting to rise just above the cut off line for the playoffs.
Teams like D.C. United, a disastrous last place side in 2013, sit in the thick of things. That’s not just because United revamped their roster and traded untested youngsters for a hardened veteran squad but also because the East is without a dominant team.
Circumstances, some of them beyond their control, have limited the defending conference champions, Sporting Kansas City, from running away with the East. International absences and injuries forced Peter Vermes to use emergency options in central defense, bringing Sporting back to the pack. The New York Red Bulls have attacked options in abundance, but can’t seem to fix their regular issues at the back.
The plight of the New England Revolution is a study in the impacts of parity and the pull to the middle. Uneven to start, the Revs went on to reel off five wins in a row, showing the type of energy and goal scoring ability that made them a dark horse pick to win the title in 2014. Since, Jay Heaps’ team has dropped six straight games, few of them of them particularly tight. It’s almost as if the good Revolution has an evil twin, intent on sabotaging their campaign. More likely, New England is a team like so many others in the Eastern Conference. Good enough to win their share of games, but deeply flaws and subject to giant swings in form.
Toronto FC is probably a good team, ready to finally breakthrough and make the playoffs. How could we know, with so much turmoil bearing down on the MLS season? “Rhythm” is a nebulous concept, but it plays a large role in determining the relative quality of a team.
Simply put, Toronto has none, and has been unable to develop it. Michael Bradley’s absence during the World Cup period didn’t seem to hurt the Reds on the field all that much. Since Bradley is a fixture in the lineup for the rest of the season, it’s unclear just what sort of team Toronto will be. In the meantime, like everyone else in the conference, Toronto FC will alternately win and lose as part of the process drawing everyone in the East to the middle.
Down the standings, there are teams good enough to cause trouble. Philadelphia is better than they’ve played. The Union could be a playoff team with a little more consistency. On Wednesday night, Philadelphia beat the Red Bulls decisively, the type of performance that should give reason to believe exactly that. A new coach and a new outlook might make the difference,. However, with half of the season already played, the Union are more unrealized potential than Eastern Conference contender.
Columbus is three points off the playoff pace, despite convincing no one that they’re anything more than an average team in need of a lead striker. Even Chicago, bad for most of the season, and Houston, a team that simply couldn’t score for a long stretch while also shipping goals at an alarming rate, are within shouting distance of reasonably believing they can reach the postseason.
It’s a conference of attrition, with the Eastern Conference teams picking each other off with enough regularity to draw nearly everyone into a morass of similar point totals.
What this all means is that we’re in for a second half of the 2014 MLS season littered with false-starts and sudden stops. As teams vacillate between good, bad, and mediocre, the results will have more of a random pattern to them than resolve into something approaching clear echelons.
The only echelon will be the middle, where the bulk of teams will land. MLS parity, as represented by numbers constituting the points earned by teams over the course of 34 games. Who comes out on top of that middle will determine playoff qualifiers. From there, the playoff crapshoot means it’s anyone’s guess who will head to MLS Cup in December.
It’s imperfect parity. The parity of unpredictability. MLS parity.
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