Major League Soccer has been a season of streaks through the first third of 2011. Los Angles Galaxy are five points clear atop the table though they have played between one and six games more than other clubs across the league.
Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City have played the fewest number of games (10) with Sporting securing just six points, having played everyone of their first ten games away due to construction of their new stadium. Los Angeles and FC Dallas have eight and seven wins, respectively, to lead the league while if the playoffs were to begin today, only the three automatic Eastern Conference positions would be included with seven Western Conference clubs would be involved.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the first third of the season has been Philadelphia Union, an expansion side in 2010, who are leading the Eastern Conference and are third on the overall table with 21 points through their twelve matches. With a tough defense led by goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón and points from matches against New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and Colorado, the Union are in great shape. Red Bull New York have bolstered their side by trading for Canadian international Dwayne de Rosario and signing English forward Luke Rodgers, both of whom are part of a powerful, if inconsistent attack. Otherwise the Eastern Conference has been extremely poor. DC United, 2010’s worst club, are in the third position in the East while sitting 11th in the overall league table. Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew are in a similar position as average sides who will be angling for the third and final guaranteed playoff position from their conference.
Out west the scene is completely different. The Galaxy, Dallas and Salt Lake are all strong sides capable of winning against nearly every opponent. Landon Donovan is leading the league in goals with eight and David Beckham has been terrific for the 2010 Supporters Shield winners. Dallas figured to struggle after 2010 league MVP David Ferreira had his ankle broken but the Texas club have won six of their nine games, drawing the other three. Just as they did last season, when they used a 19-game unbeaten streak to climb the table and reach the MLS Cup final, Dallas are relying on the strength of Kevin Hartman in goal and are scoring enough goals to keep from losing matches. Both Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders have had star players suffer catastrophic injuries as Javier Morales and Steve Zakuani both had their legs broken and are in the process of missing the vast majority of this season. Still, both sides have done well and recreated their attacks.
2011 has welcomed two expansion sides into MLS with varying degrees of success. After Vancouver Whitecaps won their season opener 4-2 over Toronto FC, the Canadian club have earned just seven points from their next thirteen matches, without another victory, and are currently only clear of Kansas City on the league table. The Whitecaps sacked their Icelandic manager, Teitur Thordarson, and replaced him with former DC United manager Tom Soehn. Portland Timbers are the league’s other new club and have fared much better than Vancouver. Though they took just one point from their first three games of the season, all away, the Timbers stormed back by winning their first five games at home and earning a crucial draw away to local rivals Seattle. Though Portland have lost their last two games, the Timbers are on pace to qualify for the playoffs in this their first MLS season. Dynamic wing play from 20-year old Ghanian Khalif Alhassan and a steady stream of goals from set pieces have allowed the Timbers to compete at the top level in North America.
The trends that have dominated the first third of the MLS season include terrifying fouls, poor officiating and an overall inability of clubs to score goals. With a league-wide average of less than 2.5 goals per game, defenses, and goalkeepers in particular, appear to be ahead of the curve. This figure would be even lower had Philadelphia not scored six against Toronto just two weeks ago. Yet it is the injuries that are the headlines in this 2011 season. Brian Mullan’s vengeful tackle on Steve Zakuani snapped the Seattle forward’s leg and earned the Colorado Rapids player a league record ten-game suspension. Within two weeks the aforementioned injuries to Javier Morales and David Ferreira occurred thanks to brutal fouls, the latter of which was not even whistled as such during the game. With three of the league’s most exciting attacking players sidelined for long stretches, MLS has lost a bit of its offensive luster. Finally, the officiating, long poor at this and every level in the United States and Canada, has seen a marked decline this season. There are certainly competent referees but the introduction of several new officials as well as the continued use of long-time offenders has brought the issue to the fore once again. As long as MLS ignores this facet of it’s league and refuses to create a disciplinary system for poor performance, the league’s image will continue to suffer.
Overall the start to the 2011 MLS season has been exciting, controversial and unexpected, which is precisely what is needed to capture a slow-to-respond general public. Television ratings remain pathetic and attendance has actually dropped at several grounds around the league. The introduction of new clubs in Portland and Vancouver has kept the attendance averages steady and introduced long-time rivalries to a league desperate for authenticity. The 36,593 in attendance for Seattle and Portland’s 1-1 draw on May 14 was the highest ever at Qwest Field and is unlikely to be topped in a regular season game this year. MLS will need to weather the month of June, as 32 players from the league are taking part in CONCACAF’S Gold Cup, and hope that the quality of play does not drop too much as many of the league’s top players are absent. Still, controversy and excitement are ultimately good for a league that continues to grow not just in North America but worldwide.