Through twenty-seven weeks, Major League Soccer has been a place for tremendous rises and spectacular falls. From the phoenix-like emergence of Sporting Kansas City to the tribulations of Red Bull New York, MLS has not lacked for story lines. With just a month left in the 2011 regular season, the balance of power in the league is quite clear, even as clubs continue to vie for the all-important playoff positions.
The top of the table has gone largely unchanged for months with LA Galaxy atop the table since mid-June. Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake have all challenged for the second position but none have been able to catch the Supporters Shield holders. Only a stunning turn in the final weeks would displace the star-studded Galaxy. The MLS playoff structure is such that the top three sides in each of two geographic conferences automatically qualify for the post-season, regardless of their finish on the overall table. That will leave one of the three aforementioned clubs out of the top spots and into the Wild Card round of the playoffs. With losses recently to Seattle, New England Revolution and New York, Dallas have slipped and seem most likely to remain in fourth through season’s end.
In the Eastern Conference, no club is higher than sixth place on the overall table. That position is held by Columbus Crew, a club on pace for the fewest points and worst goal difference of any conference champion in MLS’s 16-year history. Though the Western Conference is clearly dominant, holding the top five positions (fifth place being MLS Cup holders Colorado Rapids), the East does provide positions six through ten in the current standings. Yet fifth place and twelfth place are separated by just seven points while tenth place New York only hold that position thanks to goal difference over expansion side Portland Timbers. Interestingly, MLS uses head-to-head performance as the first tie-breaker, rather than goal difference, when determining final positions on the table. At present, New York and Portland have only played once and that was a 3-3 draw at Jeld-Wen Field. The return match is this weekend at Red Bull Arena and could have a lot to say about the final standing of each club.
As the season winds down, each team in the league still has quite a lot to play for. Though it is likely that expansion side Vancouver Whitecaps will win the league’s unceremonial Wooden Spoon and finish last in the league, every other club is within nine points of tenth place. Though unlikely, just about every team in league is still mathematically eligible for the playoffs. That places high importance on every game over the rest of September and October. Many critics of MLS cite the playoff system as a detracting from the value of individual league games. Yet the fact that so many clubs have something to play for at this late stage suggests that perhaps MLS has got it right in a way. Granted, the last two Cup champions barely qualified for the playoffs at all, leaving frustration that a season’s worth of success can be overtaken by a team that happens to be playing well at the right time. Ultimately, this argument helps keep the league a topic of discussion in the wider sporting world – a benefit for the league.
Though it is not always so, MLS this season has been a league for the stars. Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan are joint top scorers with a dozen goals each while Charlie Davies (and to be fair, 33-year old Peruvian Andrés Mendoza) has just one less. David Beckham leads the league with fourteen assists but keeps his name on both sides of the ledger by leading the league with ten yellow cards. While Beckham has been nothing short of terrific for the Galaxy this season, his seemingly purposeful cards ahead of matches on artificial turf have drawn the ire of more than a few away fans.
Apart from the Designated Player roll call that has dominated the statistical categories in MLS, several younger players have emerged as stars in the making. One such player is Graham Zusi at Sporting. The 25-year old midfielder was the league’s Player of the Month in June and has helped lead Kansas City from a six week spell in the eighteenth position to seventh place in just fourteen weeks. Elsewhere, Brek Shea, the 21-year old winger and USA international, has exploded as an unstoppable force for 2010 runners-up FC Dallas. With ten goals and a handful of assists, Shea has been one of the most dominant players in the league, and certainly the best young player in MLS.
MLS will not conclude its season for another two months as the playoffs extend the life of the league through November 20. At that time, two sides will play for the MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center in suburban Los Angeles. Between now and then, it could be that every story line mentioned above will be flipped upside down. That is what makes football great, particularly in a league with the level of parity and similarity of style MLS possesses.