By Paul Gardner
If MLS ran things the way that they do elsewhere in the world and employed the promotion/relegation system, then right now we should be looking at a quite extraordinary situation.
If the bottom two teams in each Conference were to be relegated, the league would, overnight, lose D.C. United, the New England Revs, Houston Dynamo.
Those are the three teams that are already eliminated from the playoffs. The three worst teams in MLS. A trio that have long been among the strongest and winningest teams in MLS. Of the 14 MLS Cups so far played, nine have featured at least one of that trio. D.C. is four times winner, Houston has won twice, and while the Revs have never taken the trophy, they have been in the final four times.
No, I don’t have an explanation for this decline in the fortunes of three previously strong clubs. You start off thinking, oh well, they’ve hit a bad patch, things will get better, but that hasn’t happened.
All three clubs have been playing poorly, indecisively, inconsistently and -- for those of us looking for a reason -- really inexplicably. You can look back and declare that D.C. missing out on the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 was a sure sign that the rot had set in. Maybe so, but there remained the feeling that things would soon be set to rights, simply because this was D.C. Instead, this season, they have gotten unspeakably worse. Curt Onalfo proved, very quickly -- almost with his first signing in fact, that he was not the man to return D.C. to its former grandeur. That signing was the Australian Danny Allsopp. Whether or not Allsopp was a good enough player (I did not believe he was) is almost irrelevant here. The point was that, stylistically, he was a total misfit, definitely not a D.C. player. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam ...” asked the poet, a question that got no answer from D.C., which was suddenly a team without a style, without a soul and certainly with nothing gleaming about it.
The brash enthusiasm of Andy Najar was some compensation, but the notion of having to rely on a raw teenager to light the place up tells all. Caught up in this melancholy mess, a tragedy within a tragedy, was the magnificent Jaime Moreno, sadly forced to play his retirement season as a series of ineffective substitutions on a feeble team, with just one goal to show for his efforts.
Style is hardly the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of the other two fallen clubs. Maybe we could have been clever enough to know that something was coming off the rails for Houston when, in 2008, calamitously lost a playoff game at home to the hapless Red Bulls. At the time, it seemed more of an extraordinary triumph for the New Yorkers than an ominous collapse for the Dynamo. Last year the Dynamo was back in the Conference final, a turgid game that lumbered into overtime before the Galaxy got home via a goal poked into the net during a goalmouth scramble and then a penalty kick. Unedifying soccer that underlined the feeling that Houston without Dwayne De Rosario was only about half the team it had been. Without his flair and game-winning brilliance, Houston appeared just plain ordinary.
As for the New England Revs, that extraordinary record of battling their way to four MLS Cup finals and then losing all four of them takes some explaining. Inability to score is certainly one explanation -- those four games produced only two Rev goals. What the Revs always had was tenacity, precisely the sort of do-or-die quality that could take a team further than its soccer really warranted ... further, but never quite far enough. This year the tenacity has dropped off and the team has suffered for want of a creative midfield -- or simply a creative midfielder. Relying on the hard-working but ultimately straightforward play of Shalrie Joseph is not enough.
D.C. is wondering about a new coach, or whether to confirm Ben Olsen in the role. The Dynamo’s Dominic Kinnear and the Revs’ Steve Nicol are probably safe for the moment, if only because they have achieved so much in the past.
Three poor teams that will not be relegated. Such a system would simply not work in MLS. Though I should pause for a moment to note a possible advantage of relegation -- that it does give a team a chance to re-invent itself by playing against weaker opposition, to re-invigorate, and then to climb back to the top league. Such is the theory. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. The MLS method is that the team must regain its strength in situ, so to speak.
We’re still not sure how that works. Changing the personality of a team has proved difficult in MLS so far. It has taken New York 14 years -- and a new owner ready to spend more money than anyone has ever spent in MLS -- to produce what, at last looks like winning team. The Galaxy has not been quite so successful, but there is promise there.
Does this mean, then, that MLS is going the way of all the big soccer leagues -- where money is really all that matters? Where the richest are the winners? Not yet -- I would cite the nifty way that Jason Kreis managed to turn the pathetic Real Salt Lake into a winning team in the space of about two years to indicate that big-spending may not be the only answer.
But, sooner or later, that is the way it’s going to be. The Designated Player rules -- if applied with soccer intelligence -- must favor the richest owners. As must any meaningful relaxation of the salary cap. When MLS becomes an 18- or a 20-team league, it may well have an elite group of three or four clubs that are likely to dominate play. That is alleged to be a bad thing, but current experience in Europe -- where it applies to most of the major leagues -- seems to be that the fans find it perfectly acceptable. At any rate, they haven’t stopped paying their way -- at sky high prices -- into the stadiums.