By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Mar 7, 2018) US Soccer Players - Take everything you thought you knew about how the 2018 MLS season and throw it in the trash. Nothing applies anymore unless your season preview started with the favorites losing in week 1. That included both of last year’s MLS Cup participants not just losing, but losing at home. A fancied team for Eastern Conference success got throttled 4-0. Once again, the MLS version of parity decided to make the case against the obvious.
Down is up, up is down, dogs and cats are living together. In this bizarro MLS—we can’t be sure of anything. Think Toronto FC is a lock to make the playoffs and defend their title? WRONG. Positive that Atlanta United is going to build on last year’s inaugural season and threaten for a championship? NOPE. Got Seattle as the cream of the Western Conference, sure to be playing for a third straight conference crown come November? HAH.
Ok, you’re probably not wrong. There are no guarantees in MLS, but it’s unlikely the league has flipped over completely in one offseason. If the first week of the campaign proved anything, it’s that MLS can be very unpredictable from game to game. However, that doesn’t mean that over the course of a full season, conventional wisdom won’t still come through most of the time.
Neither of last year’s finalists won on opening day in 2017, either. Only four teams that eventually made the playoffs did. Toronto went on the road to Real Salt Lake and played to a drab 0-0 draw, failing to score against a team that would fire its head coach just a few weeks later. Seattle lost in Houston to a Dynamo team coming off a last-place finish with a brand new head coach at the helm.
Obviously, Houston came good in the end by making the playoffs and reaching the Western Conference final. In March of 2017 they weren’t expected to be much of anything. The knowledge that the 2017 Dynamo improved over the previous version changes how we view the Sounders loss.
There should be less surprise over Houston’s victory against Atlanta United on Saturday. While United is among the favorites in the Eastern Conference based on their collection of South American talent and the leadership of head coach Tata Martino, the personnel deficiency that Houston exploited in its 4-0 was apparent to observers before the two teams took the field at BBVA Compass Stadium. If anything should be a surprise from the match, it’s the scoreline and how quickly the Dynamo stormed out to a three-goal lead.
Martino’s perceived superiority over Cabrera is based entirely on Martino’s resume outside of the country. That didn’t necessarily inform the tactical dominance of the Dynamo on Saturday. Maybe Atlanta simply believed the quality of their team would overcome any defensive deficiencies, or perhaps they just planned to win a shootout. Either way, Houston’s emphatic victory reminds us that whatever the resume a coach might have or however big we think a talent advantage to be, the gaps between teams remain smaller than our preseason prognostications imagine.
It’s always hard to win on the road, even when the home side is terrible. We know that the Dynamo are not terrible.
There are other caveats at play that are worth a mention. Both the Sounders and TFC are in the midst of CONCACAF Champions League campaigns that are stretching resources and diverting focus. Seattle consciously chose to prioritize the 1st-leg of the quarterfinal matchup against Chivas de Guadalajara and played second choice players at several spots against LAFC. Clint Dempsey was out, as was Chad Marshall. The team’s website went so far as to explain the lineup, pointing directly at CCL games in midweek on either side of Sunday.
Toronto FC’s excuse, if such a thing even works in parity-rich MLS, might be fatigue. Seeing off Colorado in the Champions League didn’t look like a significant challenge. Still, putting the tournament first meant lining up several established starters in both games.
Or, it might just be that Columbus is pretty good, that Crew SC beating the champs isn’t that much of a shock, and that Toronto will be fine as the season unfolds.
The truth is that one weekend isn't going to disrupt the order. It's a single round of games. We've seen this sort of thing before in this league. MLS isn’t the only competition where parity messes with the ability to handicap games, but the nature of soccer does have a peculiar way of scrambling the data.
Think of this way. The margins between the good and bad in MLS are big enough that we can perceive them but small enough that we tend to overestimate them. Is Seattle better than LAFC? Objectively, the answer is yes. On the given Sunday they faced off against one another at CenturyLink Field, it didn’t matter. TFC is the defending champion. So while Columbus is probably not too far away from their standard, it remains a surprise when they lose at home. Atlanta spent all that money that Houston doesn’t have or won’t spend, so the manner of the visitors' loss seems strange.
Maybe one of the favorites who lost in week 1 will fail to make the playoffs. This is MLS, and stranger things have happened. No one went so far as to imagine that the Galaxy would finish dead last overall in 2017, regardless of Bruce Arena’s departure. Injuries and chemistry issues can toss a season sideways, just ask Oscar Pareja and FC Dallas.
Nowhere is conventional wisdom worth less than in MLS. I wouldn't throw those predictions in the trash just yet. 2017 might have gotten off to a weird start, but there are still 33 games to go. Things just might turn out the way we all expected. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate surprise?
More From Jason Davis:
- The big MLS stories for 2018
- The NASL goes dark
- Shining the spotlight on four MLS players in 2018
- Toronto focuses on the Champions League and MLS
(Photo by Casey Valentine - ISIPhotos.com)