Struggles of MLS Cup finalists are to be expected for smaller-market teams

By Ridge Mahoney
Heading into the final two months of the regular season, there’s a very real possibility that for the first time in league history both reigning MLS Cup finalists might miss the playoffs.

Defending league champion Portland is clinging to sixth place in the Western Conference, ahead of San Jose thanks only to the first tiebreaker (total wins) and one point ahead of Seattle, but having played one more game than the Quakes and Sounders.

In the East, Columbus halted a 10-game winless streak on Saturday by beating New England -- the 2014 MLS Cup finalist that is also floundering this season –- but fell into last place in the overall MLS standings after Wednesday's 2-1 loss at home to Philadelphia -- six points back of sixth-place D.C. United.

The effects of rapid expansion from 12 teams to the current membership of 20 in less than a decade (2007-15) can be debated pro and con. More teams mean more competition for playoff spots even though the league has added postseason berths to keep pace with a growing membership. MLS increased the playoff field from eight teams to 10 teams in 2011, and added two more slots for the 2015 season by expanding the Knockout Round from two games to four.

Perhaps doing math in reverse mode provides perspective. The highest number of non-playoff teams, nine, was in force from 2012 to 2014, when 10 of 19 teams qualified. In the past two seasons, eight teams (out of 20) have missed/will miss the playoffs. Assuming no slots are added next season when Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC (not related) come in via expansion, the number of non-qualifiers will increase to 10, the largest number in league history.

Each team, new or not, relishes its shots to play against a top rival. This might be a reason that a fair number of finalists, not just the defending champion, have encountered a tough slog the following year.

Portland was a very good team last October and November, but the loss of several role players (Rodney Wallace, Jorge Villafana, Will Johnson, Max Urruti) during the offseason, a few injuries and wearing the bull's eye as defending champ have stretched its roster. The shipping of volatile striker Kei Kamara, who bagged 26 goals in the 2015 regular season and playoffs, hasn’t sparked any revival of Crew SC. The Kamara trade seems to be a case of lose-lose for both Columbus and Kamara’s current employer, New England.

Critics of the league’s liberal allotment of playoff spots decried that having so many available berths dulled the intensity of regular-season games. They had a point when only a handful of teams missed out. But as more teams confront the cost of falling short, the pressure has increased considerably.

In 2016, three teams currently out of the playoff slots -- Seattle, Houston and Orlando City -- have changed their head coaches. When NYCFC fired head coach Jason Kreis last November, team management cited a failure to make the playoffs as one reason for its decision. There were other factors in play, yet the same rationale was applied in July when Orlando City fired Adrian Heath, who had helped guide the team from USL PRO into MLS during his eight-year tenure, and replaced him with Kreis.

When Kreis coaches the Lions against NYCFC for the first time on Sunday at Camping World Stadium, there will be more high-priced players on the field than were at MAPFRE Stadium last December in the MLS Cup final. Crew SC finished well ahead of both expansion teams in 2015, but is behind both of them in the current standings.

FINALISTS THAT FELL SHORT. The situations for Portland and Columbus have been faced by many teams in the league’s history.

Since the league’s launch in 1996, it’s not been uncommon for one MLS Cup finalist to fall short of postseason play the following season. Such occurrences were rare when the league consisted of 10 or 12 teams -- as was the case from 1996 to 2006 -- but even when eight teams qualified from that small group, there were dramatic stumbles.

D.C. United’s great run of playing in the first four MLS Cup finals -- and winning three of them -- slammed to a halt in 2000. United lost 18 of 32 games and finished with fewer points (30) than all but one team, San Jose (29). United was the first team to fall victim of its own success; it had to clear out a few high-priced players to stay within the league’s stringent financial standards and paid the price, literally.

Four years later, Chicago took the tumble from finalist to doormat. After losing the 2003 MLS Cup final to the Quakes, 4-2, Chicago missed out on the 2004 postseason by finishing tied for fourth (of five Eastern teams!) with New England, and losing out on the tiebreaker. Both teams compiled 8-13-9 records and a league-worst 33 points.

The following season produced yet another collapse. Kansas City reached the 2004 championship game, which it lost to D.C., 3-2. It could do no better than fifth in the 2005 Eastern Conference season. Known then as the Wizards, they finished with the same number of points, 45, as the Galaxy, which claimed fourth place in the Western Conference – and a playoff spot -- by finishing way ahead of expansion stragglers Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA.

(The 2005 season stands as one of the most notorious examples of playoff volatility. The Galaxy knocked off Supporters’ Shield winner San Jose on its way to MLS Cup, in which it played -- and beat -- New England, the top team in the East, at brand-new Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.)

RECENT RECORDS. Since the league kicked off a furious rate of expansion by adding Toronto FC in 2007, surprisingly only one MLS Cup finalist has failed to qualify for postseason play the following season.

That would be the Red Bulls, who commemorated their first MLS Cup appearance in 2008 by plummeting to the Eastern Conference cellar in 2009. They were by far league’s worst team: with a 5-19-6 record and 21 points, they were nine points behind Western doormat San Jose (7-14-9).

Finalists have barely squeaked into the playoffs the following season as Knockout-Round teams, which at this point seems the best that fans of the Timbers and Crew SC can hope for. (Of course, Portland rolled to its first league title as a third-place team, so hope does spring eternal.)

The Revs fell in the 2014 final to the Galaxy and finished fifth last year. They lost their Knockout-Round match, 2-1, to D.C. United.

After edging Real Salt Lake in an epic shootout to capture the 2013 MLS Cup, Sporting Kansas City also lurched home fifth the following season, and it, too, stumbled in the Knockout Round (to the Red Bulls, 2-1).

Fears that rapid expansion would dilute the quality of play do not seem valid, since many of the newer teams are among the most ambitious and highest-spending members. What expansion has done is increase the cost of personnel decisions, especially for teams with smaller budgets. Losing a player or two in an Expansion Draft is exacerbated if replacements don't measure up and/or other players depart or suffer significant injuries.

A mid-market team like Columbus is up against the resources of Toronto FC, Montreal and the Red Bulls as well as big-spending 2015 expansion teams New York City FC and Orlando City SC. Success is not strictly a function of money. The top four teams in the West at the beginning of the week -- FC Dallas, Colorado, RSL, and SKC -- spend less on players and infrastructure than the Galaxy and Seattle, yet player compensation is a major reason those latter two teams have made the playoffs in each season since the Sounders joined MLS in 2009. They are the only teams to do so (RSL's run ended last year).

As smaller-market teams, Portland and Columbus defied the odds -- and figures -- by reaching the championship game. Their struggles this season indicate how difficult it can be to sustain success in MLS. 

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