How midtable became MLS no man’s land

By Jeff Rueter – SAINT PAUL, MN (Mar 15, 2018) US Soccer Players – As a freshly-minted 22-year-old, Major League Soccer is understandably still figuring out its place in this big world. No league in professional sports has seen so much of a transitionary period in the past 5-10 years as MLS. In 2008, the Houston Dynamo failed to win a historic MLS Cup three-peat, falling short in the first round of the playoffs to New York Red Bulls. Four Dynamo players made just $33,000 each. The players? Chris Wondolowski, Bobby Boswell, Stuart Holden, and Geoff Cameron. Forty-five players across the league earned just $12,900 for their services, including one Stephen Wondolowski. While the Designated Player rule was still a new innovation, the level of play was decidedly lagging behind the top leagues of the world.

Oh, what a difference a decade can make. The league minimum salary now sits at $67,500, over five times that of 2008. The infusion of allocation money has allowed the league’s smartest teams to deepen their rosters and work more creatively under the confines of the salary cap. The league’s development academy movement has produced Homegrown dividends, including World Cup starters and future starlets alike.

All of these have also helped level the playing field. More than any league in the world, any team can win on any given weekend. The first two weeks of the season alone have seen high-flying Atlanta get embarrassed by a 4-0 defeat at Houston, defending champion Toronto dominated by the Columbus Crew, and expansion side Los Angeles FC win its first two contests under Bob Bradley.

In a 34-match season, these early results do matter. Yes, MLS is a league that greatly benefits from swings of momentum, one of the many things that can carry over in a cross-country flight. Toronto will be feeling the sting of that result long after the Concacaf Champions League wraps up, whether or not the Reds are part of the final. It leads to more interesting games each week, and at least one pseudo-upset in nearly every weekend.

The competitive balance has its perks. Between the salary cap and the improving mechanisms to acquire talent, it’s very unlikely we’ll see a team run away with the MLS title in a similar fashion to European giants like Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, or this season’s Manchester City. We’re even less likely to see the prospect of relegation introduced into the top-flight, meaning that teams can allow for a gradual build-up or rebuild to ensure they get things right.

In recent years, media types like myself have put a greater emphasis on making the playoffs as a baseline definition of “success.” Each week, the red line gains increased scrutiny, a litmus test of teams that are going for it week-in and week-out, teams that are underperforming, or giving context for some of the league’s most heated matchups toward the end of the season.

Still, as 2018 shows the league taking another step forward, maybe that red line benchmark is still too lenient. Take last season for example. The Western Conference’s sixth, seventh, and eighth place teams were all within one point of each other. San Jose won the scrap, scoring in the final minutes of its regular season finale to punch its ticket to Vancouver. By our latest standard, this is a good end to their season. However, the Earthquakes finished with the league’s fourth-worst goal differential. They lost in a 5-0 avalanche against the Whitecaps, and ended up making a coaching change alongside replacing numerous starters.

Meanwhile, Real Salt Lake finished at the bottom of this triad, with its 45 points falling just one shy of the required target. Like San Jose, RSL underwent a coaching change in the first half of the season. Like San Jose, the team responded to its new manager and put up far more of a fight. However, the comparison ends here, as Real Salt Lake found its core to build around. Young players like Justen Glad, Danny Acosta, and Albert Rusnak meshed with the old guard of Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman. Despite finishing 2017 out of the playoff race, it was Real Salt Lake who came out of the offseason as a surefire playoff favorite, and San Jose with more questions than answers.

Of course, two teams don’t make for a league-wide indictment. Perhaps the biggest danger of seeing a postseason berth as the true measure of success is one of complacency. A team that finishes fifth or sixth and loses its play-in game finds itself in a precarious spot come December. While it did indeed make the postseason, its seeding (in theory, being teams 9-12 in the league) dooms it to a much-maligned midtable moniker.

In the world’s top leagues, midtable teams take on many personas. Some are lovable underdogs against the league’s elite, able to pick off the favorites if they slip, and might be overachievers based off of their budget. Others might be chronic underperformers, with the talent and funds necessary to compete for international tournaments but at least one major Achilles’ Heel (poor coaching, big egos, erratic players…you name it).

In MLS, these midtable teams may be consistent. They may be dependable. Rarely are they the ones who push the league forward. It’s why team’s like last year’s Crew stand out. Under one of the league’s best coaches, a core united under a common cause can overperform its expected standing.

Still, the league is starting to see “haves” and “have nots” emerge to a certain extent. While the Galaxy’s slip last season showed that a major market alone couldn’t carry a club, savvy teams with deep financial backing can easily assure their place among the league’s best. Those in Seattle, Toronto, New York City, and now Atlanta seem poised to keep their place at the top of each season’s table. Meanwhile, the Crew and Red Bulls have great coaching and, in the latter’s case, a deep academy.

Meanwhile, teams like Colorado, New England, and Minnesota continually have to reinvent themselves in the face of a shifting league. This season, this triad was almost universally seen as spots 21-23 in each pundit’s power rankings. Two have a new coach, while the third is still forming its initial identity in its second MLS season.

Still, mechanisms like the allocation order and SuperDraft favor those who need a boost, in aims to catapult them back toward the red line and restore parity in the league. For teams in seeds 4-8 each year, it can be harder yet. Not favored by the mechanisms, these teams in theory have cores capable of competing each week. It raises a crucial question: when is it time to blow it up and try to grow, no matter the risk?

Portland ran into a version of this during the offseason. Face-of-the-franchise Darlington Nagbe sought non-green pastures, while head coach Caleb Porter was ready for a fresh start. These decisions are easier when the personnel themselves request it. But for a team like Sporting Kansas City — who’s made every postseason since its 2011 rebrand, but hasn’t made it past the knockout round in their last four appearances — that decision is impossible to solve.

Peter Vermes’ side has gone through a DNA shift of its own, albeit less dramatically than the Timbers. Sporting dealt midfielder Benny Feilhaber , with striker Dom Dwyer shown the door six months prior. With floods of allocation money, SKC is looking to get younger and deeper, banking on players like Johnny Russell and Yohan Croizet to add fresh blood to a stable group.

Whatever the decision, each team should be afraid of complacency. Being a consistent threat for the postseason is fine, so long as you can make noise when the stakes are higher. If not, it could set you back for years to come. Due to uncertain questions with 50/50 answers, the middle of the table can be the worst fate for a team.

Jeff Rueter is a reporter and analyst covering Major League Soccer for The Guardian, ESPN FC, The Athletic – Minnesota, and USSoccerPlayers. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffrueter.

(Photo by Bill Barrett – ISIPhotos.com)

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