By J Hutcherson (Aug 28, 2022) US Soccer Players – Earlier this month, I didn’t celebrate 20 years working for USSoccerPlayers.com and 23 years writing about pro soccer. In large part, that’s because I try not to keep count. We’re all following a sport where some league or tournament is always happening. You join in the flow of games that seem never-ending. That may be how a lot of MLS teams feel about the 2022 season, one that has yet to settle on what we could call normal.
Major League Soccer has been tricky that way so far, asking questions that most clubs can’t answer game-by-game. That’s holding up and down the table. Teams currently finding success can still look back at stretches where that wasn’t happening. Professional sports is always about the next game until a team is no longer in contention. Still, it’s tough to sweep away portions of a season where it seems difficult to know much of anything.
Since we’ve reached the point of the season where coaches and players are talking about the playoffs, it’s worth joining them. Given what we’ve seen so far it might not be the same playoffs where successful regular season teams exit early. This remains a season where trying to draw any sweeping conclusions creates issues the next time teams take the field. Where this leaves us in late August is not new this season, but the pressure is already ramping up. So here are some of those sweeping conclusions, perhaps a little early, for why even good MLS teams are having trouble figuring out this season.
Does what counts in May still matter in August?
A tough run of games and travel ending in dropped points against a weaker team is always explainable. A home stand where a contender can’t take full advantage, not as much. Back in May, it was easy to look at the Philadelphia Union’s run of draws as evidence that they lacked a decisive edge. Here’s where we would talk about the Union’s more recent lopsided wins. Except that also requires considering the strength of the opponent.
That’s the problem with misinterpreting results at any stretch of the calendar. It’s far too easy to decide that a set of results equals form and, in turn, the arc of a season. Philadelphia is a team that could be well ahead in the Eastern Conference. Instead, it’s five points with a massive lead in goal difference. Except MLS doesn’t immediately reward goal difference. It’s not the first tiebreaker, a reminder that this is a league that focuses on winning games.
Has any team figured out how to balance an MLS roster?
While this begins with stars, we’re talking about a league with short rosters. Overlook the contributions of a squad player who ends up unavailable, and good teams can slip. It also makes it easy for teams to become over-reliant on players that prove irreplaceable over a season. We’ve seen teams choose to move out key contributors. That has to speak to a broader understanding of an MLS roster.
The problem, of course, is the same. There are few like-for-like replacements in MLS. Lose that key component, and the season can’t help but tilt. That breaks systems, shifts tactics, and causes scenarios that are hard to fix in the short term. That’s the polite way of saying that it can wreck a season for teams that seemed to have it together.
How about balancing the MLS playoffs?
The temptation is always there to use the playoffs to justify the regular season. While some teams push back against that by treating an early exit as the problem it is, the difference remains. Even for higher seeds that end up one and done, the playoffs has to count for something. It’s the lower seeds that can turn a playoff run into too much justification.
Every season, this is tough territory. Are there playoff teams in MLS? Last year’s Real Salt Lake run would provide an obvious answer. Still, there’s that odd MLS situation with expectation and reality. Asking about RSL also requires asking about how the Western Conference finished. Decision Day was far from straightforward in 2021, leading to what we saw across the bracket. That’s more than part of the point of a playoff league, but it’s about getting the balance right. That leads to better technical decisions moving forward.
What about basic inconsistency in both conferences this season?
We’re watching enough teams playing through saw-tooth seasons to suggest a trend. Up one week and down the next, always with time left to fix a situation. Given the scope of the league in 2022, it’s almost not unexpected to see the Western Conference leaders in that category in late August. LAFC’s rebuild is ongoing for a club already at or near the top of the table. That it hasn’t been a straightforward push to dominance should concern other teams. It’s not that those teams are experiencing similar from weaker squads. It’s that it suggests that not even the better equipped clubs are getting it right.
That speaks to the broader inconsistency that has become a hallmark of MLS this season. The Chicago Fire’s recent run of form ended against teams at or near the top of the Eastern Conference table. Yet somehow, being one of the teams on the wrong side of a lopsided Philadelphia win seemed like a disappointment. This for a club that was struggling near the bottom of the table before winning four out of five. Meanwhile, Austin beating LAFC now may overshadow their own issues keeping pace in the West. It’s as much about clubs taking advantage of openings as other teams creating them.
Further down the table, this is the difference between staying with a tactical system and redoing it completely. The scope of an offseason has hinged on less. That’s going to end up being the comprehensive issue for technical staffers as the season pushes to the playoffs. It’s not the familiar “playoffs justify the regular season” scenario. It’s looking back over the entirety of the season and seeing what worked well enough in practice. That might sound straightforward, but MLS in 2022 is not making it that simple.
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 at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea after three Premier League games
- Below the 20 point line in MLS
- Playing for the now in MLS
- Five substitutes and a changing game
Photo by Bill Barrett – ISIPhotos.com