Several teams chasing a playoff spot dropped down the ladder by losing last weekend, and to explain the disappointing performances, players and coaches and pundits once again cranked out variations on the “I” word: Inconsistent.
Good one game, poor the next, or prone to encouraging runs followed by depressingly inept struggles, such teams are hung with the “I” word. It’s the favorite term of those in denial, for the stark fact is and always has been that the subpar takes two forms: either a player or coach or a team is average or worse much of the time, or, as it more often the case, performances range from good to poor without any apparent rhyme or reason.
Rarely does a 10-10-10 team win once, tie once, and lose once in any three-game sequence. Spurts and streaks are more common, so a team that won three of four could very well lose five of the next eight and no savvy statistician would question the distribution of results. However, everybody else does amid anguish and without looking truth squarely in the face. A few lucky bounces and a losing team is unbeaten in three games and there’s rejoicing throughout the land, yet it’s no more than a bad team enjoying a good run.
In other sports, those who bemoan narrow losses don’t want to be reminded of a verity: poor teams lose close games. Whether it’s a one-run defeat in baseball, or a two-pointer in basketball or football, those are tough defeats, surely, but not necessarily unjust. Good teams can overcome the occasional cruel twist of fortune, mediocre teams labor just to put two or three quality showings together.
Case in point: Chivas USA. By beating an equally mediocre New England, 2-0, last weekend and playing a goalless tie with parent club Guadalajara Tuesday that it won on penalty kicks, Chivas USA had seduced fans and journalists into believing it could launch a strong late-season run as a bonafide playoff-worthy contender. Forgotten in the euphoria were a 3-0 loss in Colorado, a 2-0 loss in Dallas, and a 0-0 home tie with Seattle during the past month that more accurately represented how it stacks up against those teams currently in the playoff tier.
At home on a pleasant Sunday night, Chivas USA rarely tested Kansas City, itself also out of the playoff octet, and lost, 2-0. That was the fourth time it had been shut out in the last six league matches, yet head-scratching ensued, along with dark suspicions that Coach Martin Vasquez would seal his departure by missing the playoffs after three straight postseason appearances under predecessor Preki, who got the boot himself last week after winning just seven of 24 games with Toronto.
TFC, too, had been labeled inconsistent. But Preki’s departure had been preceded by a 10-game segment in which it won just one game. That’s not inconsistency, per se, that’s just plain bad. Whether Preki deserved more time to get it right or had to be swept out with the man who hired him, Mo Johnston, is no longer relevant. TFC is now looking for its fifth head coach – not counting interim replacement Nick Dasovic -- in less than four seasons of play, and any candidate will be mindful of how quickly the window of change closed on Preki.
Are the problems at Chivas USA endemic to the changes wrought by Vasquez, and has he harmed the team rather than improved it? Or are the stumbles and struggles to be expected in the wake of a key player like Sacha Kljestan departing in midseason? Kljestan could have been the poster boy of a talented yet maddeningly inconsistent MLS player. Sprinkle a few of those into a lineup and you have a team deserving of praise one night and profanity the next.
It takes time for a new coach to instill his ideas and philosophies, and to re-mold a team through changes in personnel, training methods, etc. One of the hardest tasks any coach faces is imbuing in his players a consistent level of competent play. In a salary-tight league such as MLS, this can be especially daunting, and even an experienced Designated Player such as Rafa Marquez can throw in an occasional clunker, as he did in New York’s 2-2 tie with Dallas last week. But a solid, well-prepared team can overcome an off-night of one or even two of its star attractions.
Gauging whether a team is on the right track can be tricky, especially as squandered points drop a team further and further off the playoff pace. When eight of 10 or 12 teams made the playoffs, management could give coaches a longer leash and "inconsistent" play could be forgiven.
But with 16 teams in the mix, and 18 scheduled to line up next year with the addition of Vancouver and Portland, the excuse of inconsistency carries less weight. Those teams that can consistently get results will make the playoffs; those that can’t generate those results won’t, and will be exposed for what they are: not good enough.