Quick, take a look at the Major League Soccer standings, specifically the Western Conference. Leading the way you have two clubs (Chivas USA and the Seattle Sounders) with a perfect nine points from their first three games. In Seattle’s case, the team has yet to yield a goal. At the bottom of the table, you have FC Dallas, who have yet to book a point, and LA Galaxy who have already given up five goals in two games. The story is the same, though less pronounced, in the East; the Chicago Fire and New England Revolution are off to unbeaten starts while the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew have yet to win. The Red Bulls have in fact yet to score a goal.
Is this really MLS? The league that in 14 years of its existence has demonstrated a near-dogmatic reverence for parity? Where all teams (and their budgets) are collectively owned and operated by a central authority? Where last season a team that didn’t even have a winning record stormed the playoffs to make MLS Cup? What is going on here? Has parity run its course?
Initial research seem to support this argument. And not only what can be gleaned from the tables. Watching some of the games this season, you get the unmistakable sense that certain teams are simply much better than others. Witness the Red Bulls, who yesterday played with a man advantage for close to 80 minutes, during which time they gave up a goal before losing to the Chicago Fire. Or did you see some of the Galaxy’s defending (or severe lack thereof) against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday night? Most high school teams are tighter at the back than Bruce Arena’s squad. These teams don’t even look like last-placed squads–they look like they don’t belong in the league at all!
In FC Dallas’ case you have a team that simply finds ways to lose. While they were the better side for large portions of Saturday night’s game at New England, they nevertheless yielded a late winner. This after a Galaxy-esque defensive letdown against Chivas in Week 2. At least Schellas Hyndman’s team is still trying though. The Red Bulls seem to have accepted their fate as a last place team, judging by Sunday’s performance at Toyota Park.
On the other side of the spectrum, the expansion Seattle Sounders are looking dominant, winning all three of their games with ease. Sigi Schmid’s side appears focused, cohesive and organized–not usually three words used to describe MLS teams, even good ones. Chivas, on the other hand, are the anti-Dallas, finding different ways to win games. Two of their first three victories came after being down 1-0. Like Seattle, Preki’s side clearly made the right moves this offseason, signing Mexican veteran Eduardo Lillingston and Serbian midfielder Bojan Stepanovic, both of whom have already featured on the scorer’s sheet. Meanwhile the Red Bulls added Khano Smith and Dominic Oduro, career role players who simply do not have the skills to contribute anything beyond that. (At least Oduro and Smith are on the team though. New York’s other additions are still in limbo somewhere. Or not match fit. Or both).
So that’s it then? A new era in MLS where Seattle and Chivas (and to a lesser extent Chicago and New England) hog the spotlight and beat up on the rest of competition, while the rest of the league struggles to maintain pace? This while New Jersey, Dallas and LA bring up the rear?
Not so fast. First of all, the season is a mere three games old. That’s nothing. There may not have been two perfect teams left at this point last season, but there were certainly clubs that got off to a hot start but ended up missing the playoffs (Colorado) or dominated early before bowing out in the first round (New England). A lot can (and does) change over the course of a season and 2009 will surely be no different in this regard.
More importantly, however, the success of teams like Chivas and particularly Seattle demonstrate that parity has not only endured, but is stronger than ever. Think about it: where else can an expansion team come in and dominate from day one the way Seattle has? Or go from mid-table to top of the heap on the strength of a few additions like Chivas? (Let’s not forget DC United in this. The fifth undefeated team was one of the worst in MLS last season but has yet to lose in three games this season). How good did New York and Columbus look in last year’s postseason? Now they’re suddenly last placed squads? Okay, so Columbus has a new coach and the Red Bulls an old one trying the same tricks that didn’t work last year. Still, if there weren’t parity, you’d figure they would have at least won a game by now? Or in New York’s case, scored a goal?
Sorry, folks, but parity is here to stay. Until the league loosens its reins on salary structure (which it will only do when forced at gunpoint by unions and/or courts) this will not–nay can not–change. Any signs to the contrary will be elusive. A mirage, if you will.
You’re likely to read a lot about this in the days and weeks ahead. More so if Seattle and Chivas win again this weekend and New York and Columbus lose. Pay no heed. The tables will turn soon enough. Parity will persist. Even in Seattle.