By J Hutcherson (Sep 28, 2015) US Soccer Players - Watch MLS games for even a short amount of time, and you probably understand the league's odd form of parity. Though there's an obvious talent gap between teams, that doesn't regularly predict the final score. Good MLS teams do more than just work through the occasional slip. They go on extended losing streaks, give away points, and create problems it can take weeks to solve. None of this necessarily drops them out of playoff contention.
That's a major part of the story every season. Teams have more than enough time and space on the schedule to royally screw it up. So here we are heading into October without a runaway winner in the East or the West, much less the Supporters' Shield. The top team in the East lost badly to an expansion team. The 2nd-place team in the West also lost to an expansion team.
Every week during the MLS season, there's a coach telling the media his very good reason why his team isn't three points better in the standings. This can certainly help teams that should rightly expect to be completely out of the picture by this point. Without a breakaway winner and a couple of teams in pursuit, deciding good from bad is that much harder.
Montreal wasn't exactly awful when they decided to switch coaches. They did it with Didier Drogba's arrival expected to change things for the better. It's Drogba making the decision to fire Frank Klopas in favor of his assistant Mauro Biello look sound, but remove Drogba and it's a different discussion. Montreal squandered their games in hand, no doubt. In the early stage of the Drogba era, it might already not matter. They're already in a playoff place, with better positions a win or two away.
Toronto FC is a point ahead on an extra game played. Toronto had their designated players in place for the start of the season, though it didn't mean a sustained victory lap through the Eastern Conference schedule. Instead, they stalled badly. Once again, Toronto was the story for the wrong reasons. Some would argue nothing has changed between then and now, that a team with Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore has to be challenging for the Supporters' Shield. Well, good news for that line of logic since they're only seven points behind the MLS-leading LA Galaxy.
The Galaxy took advantage of Vancouver not winning to jump them in the standings. Yes, the Vancouver Whitecaps became the team to beat in the West and are still within two points of the top of the table and the league. It's Vancouver that's the biggest surprise from the three Canadian clubs in 2015.
Starting with the obvious, Vancouver didn't spend at the same level as Toronto prior to the season or Montreal during the summer transfer window. They don't have a marquee player. They don't have anybody in the top ten in goals or assists. It's fair to say David Ousted won't be making it difficult when selecting Goalkeeper of the Year. That hasn't stopped Vancouver from putting together the type of season that can absorb a two-game losing streak. They've already done it. Weeks 12 and 13 and again in Weeks 19-20, turning it around to show they can win with regularity in MLS.
Winning with regularity is certainly enough. That puts a team firmly in the picture, not just for the playoffs but for the Conference title. MLS parity makes that a backhanded compliment, of course. As easy as it is to climb the table, it's also easy to slide down it. That, more than stressing the safety of the playoffs, is the issue MLS teams face right now.
For the three Canadian teams, all are in a position to play themselves in or out of contention. This is what passes for control in MLS, and for the first time all of the Canadian, teams have it. What all three are is not easy to beat. That's a different category than playing not to lose in this league, and it could be enough to keep all three of the Canadian teams in contention.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
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