Losing at home is never good, but losing at home when so much more is expected is even worse. On Sunday at RFK Stadium, tens of thousands of DC United supporters walked out of their 3-2 series loss to the New York Red Bulls in disbelief.
How could this have happened? We were the Eastern Conference Champions?
These were questions asked to yours truly countless times on Twitter and via text message on Sunday. No one could quite understand how DC United could look so great over such a long stretch and then bottom out in the playoffs.
The devil is in the details. Having come back from a disaster of a 2013 campaign where the club won just three times, they were able to pull together a 17-9-8 record and top the Eastern Conference.
This is not the first time that the club has had a tremendous shift in the standings over a two year period, the club had finished in second place in 2011 and were in dead last in 2010.
This is not an effect of MLS being a league where players magically become better over night. DC United took advantage of a system where teams can be horrible one season and then great the next. This “yo-yo effect” is not just limited to DC United. Teams all across the league do it. But is it beneficial to the team or the league?
Noah Gordon in The Atlantic made a very astute observation about European and American sports in July when he said:
In wild, wild, Western Europe, anything goes. Unregulated capitalism is matched by unfettered competition. In the U.S., the major team sports are highly re-distributive, or even socialistic.
This of course is quite contradictory to how each region generally displays their political behavior, with America taking the Adam Smith approach and Europe tending to be more socialist.
This attitude of redistribution also plays very strongly in football and in MLS. As previously mentioned here, when the league was first founded in 1994 it was founded on the premise of being a collective unit.
The scars of the disbandment of the NASL just 20 years earlier still fresh in their minds, certain safeguards were put into place to create an environment where the league would thrive and thus can allocate funds accordingly.
Certain procedures like revenue sharing and players looking to come into MLS having to negotiate with the league as opposed to the teams date back to 1994 and aren’t likely to be gone anytime soon.
But to create an environment where every team has a chance to succeed further measures were needed. In 1996, the league created the Supplemental Draft where players who are not currently protected by teams would be drafted by other squads looking to improve their sides. This draft, along with the Re-Entry Draft, are the best way for teams coming off of a bad season to turn things around quickly.
Those are not the only two drafts that teams have to improve themselves. The league also features a SuperDraft, where college players not tied to a particular MLS Youth Academy teams, Dispersal Drafts, and Expansion Drafts. All of these methods give teams instant chances to improve, but does it improve the quality of play in the league? Or does it just make supporters want to have a draft at a bar?
United took advantage of this system last season, picking up center-back Bobby Boswell (MLS All-Star and started 32 games), right-back Sean Franklin (MLS All-Star and started 20 games), and forward Fabian Espindola (11 goals). All three players were released by their respective teams, mostly for monetary reasons.
Being success for one season in MLS is easy, but having it over a long period of time is difficult. Due to the nature of how player allocation is set up, there is no chance that United is going to be able to keep all of their top players. When you also factor in that two teams are going to be picking their players as well that even lowers the chance of repeated success.
So how does a team become successful over a long period of time? Through investment in their youth academies. Clubs like the Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, and Portland Timbers have been able to sustain long periods of growth through bringing players via their Youth Academies.
Due to the structure Homegrown Player contracts, teams can hold on to the rights of players for longer periods (often four to six years). So if a player is signed between the ages 18-22 (the older due to players being in college and thus not being able to be paid because of NCAA amateur rules) teams can often to retain their rights for affordable salaries until the player is 22-28.
DC United have already used this system to help themselves, signing Homegrown Academy Products like goalkeeper Bill Hamid (US Men’s National Team player), midfielder Perry Kitchen (over 100 appearances with the club at the age of 22), and forward Michael Seaton (Jamaican international, just 18 years old). The club has also already benefited in the transfer market by selling Academy Product Andy Najar to Anderlecht, immediately helping his club in the UEFA Champions League.
Youth Academies and developing ones own players helps. But young players cannot have teams with a revolving door of veterans coming in and out. Consistency is as important on the pitch as it is in team management. Yes it is good that there are some mechanisms from which teams cans get out of the division. No one wants the Premier League where it is a four horse race for 20 years.
But for teams to grow and develop and for MLS be taken seriously as a, pardon the pun, major league teams need to be able survive on their own.
This “all for one and one for all” mentality is starting to crack. As new owners are coming into the league like the Manchester City/New York Yankees at NYCFC (two teams CERTAINLY not in favor of parity and tight financial constrictions,) as well as David Beckham in Miami one would expect the collective player acquisition model to to be altered.
The upcoming expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between the Players Union and ownership should also have effects on this process.
Meanwhile for DC United the club enters yet another off-season with more questions than answers. After a season where many clubs would feel emboldened and ready to build for 2015 they will be left scrambling trying to pick up the pieces after another hectic off-season.