Friday, May 25, 2012

Expecting the Unexpected- MLS So Far

Article by Leanne Elston

At the start of this MLS season, it seemed like general consensus that the Western Conference would be stronger than its Eastern counterpart. With teams like reigning champions LA Galaxy and the consistently powerful Real Salt Lake, along with teams like the San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps all looking for fresh glory, the West was poised to outdo the East. On the other side of the country, teams were struggling. Sporting Kansas City looked like the clear front runner with no real equal. The Eastern Conference was chock-full of teams in various states of rebuilding (quite literally, in Houston), and it seemed inevitable that the West would produce 2012’s MLS Cup winners, provided SKC didn’t make the run themselves.

We are fast approaching the fourth month of this MLS season, and there are more than a few surprises in the standings.

So far, the season has been a perfect advertisement for the parity of MLS. For one thing, the LA Galaxy -- whom many pegged to repeat as champions -- sit at the bottom of the Western Conference, with 11 points from 12 matches. The Galaxy are winless in their last five and have just three wins total. The team has struggled both defensively, particularly in the absence of Omar Gonzalez, and offensively, despite their star-studded attack with Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Robbie Keane. Recently, the Galaxy lost against Chivas USA, a rivalry that they have dominated for the better part of the past three years. Wednesday night’s clash against the San Jose Earthquakes started well, and even seemed like it would stay that way, but the game ended with the Quakes coming back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. Questions abound in Los Angeles, and anyone who says they expected the Galaxy to be this down is probably lying.

As LA occupies the bottom of the conference table, who sits at the top but the San Jose Earthquakes. Few would have tagged the Quakes to come out firing on all cylinders, but they have been downright dangerous to play against. Chris Wondolowski is making an early run for the Golden Boot (and got called into USMNT camp), while Steven Lenhart pushes all the right buttons. Really, it’s difficult to single out specific players, because Frank Yallop’s side has exemplified the “team” ideal; the players work together and produce not only effective soccer, but entertaining soccer. You get the sense watching them that this team has got that little something extra. It would seem now that putting some money down on San Jose to contend for the title would not be a totally risky bet.

Elsewhere in the West, FC Dallas has gotten off to a poorer start than might have been predicted. The team even recently called in a psychologist to help get everyone out of their funk. Dallas have played the most games in the conference (14), but they are in seventh place, just one point ahead of the Portland Timbers (who have played three fewer games). Some already picked Dallas to have a less than great season this year, and it would seem those inklings were accurate.

However, pretty much as expected, both the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps are having strong seasons so far. Where Seattle is looking to become an MLS Cup winner for the first time, Vancouver is aiming for marked improvement over a last-place first MLS season. The Sounders and Whitecaps are third and fourth in the table respectively, and it’ll take more than a little effort to displace them. In second place we have, to the shock of few, Real Salt Lake. RSL is gunning for success and expectations remain high for them.

That’s the West for you. Now what’s going on back East?

After exploding into the season with seven wins in seven games, Sporting Kansas City have eased off the gas pedal and gone 1-3-1 in their last five. They sit third in the East behind DC United, but they are still easily one of the biggest threats that the conference has to offer. Expectations are high, and not undeservedly. But SKC are not singularly impressive. The New York Red Bulls went on a five game winning streak before drawing with Chivas USA and they currently top the Eastern Conference; the question mark for New York continues to be whether they can piece together all of the parts to make a complete whole, but so far, they have affirmed that they belong at the top. Expectations started out high, and they’ll stay that way, at least for the time being.

In second place, DC United have gotten off to an extremely solid start. Recent seasons have not been ones to remember for DCU, but Coach Ben Olsen has added important depth to the squad and that depth has turned up time and again. It is worth noting that United have played more games than any other side so far (14), but they are setting a goal for the rest of the East to catch up to. In the months leading up to the season, opinions surrounding DCU were unsure -- could the team get back to winning ways or would this be another disappointing run? -- but the Black and Red have demonstrated that they are worthy of their place in the standings.

The league? Well, it’s not looking as one-sided as we expected. The East is pulling its weight.

The Eastern Conference is not without its disappointments, of course. The Philadelphia Union seem to be running themselves into messes all over the place. They recently traded away their captain Danny Califf to Chivas USA, and just as in LA, questions abound. The Union are very much in transition right now, and it’s showing. The Houston Dynamo have been a bit underwhelming in terms of the standings -- many expected, and probably still expect, them to hover around near the top -- but given that they started the season on an extended road trip, it’s hard to really judge them.

And then? Then there’s Toronto FC. Boy, oh boy. They weren’t exactly expected to turn up and take the league by storm, but were they expected to do just this poorly? Nine games played, and zero points to show for it. Strangely enough, in conjunction with this unfortunate start, Toronto made a run into the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals (though they fell 6-2 to Santos Laguna in the second leg) and just won the Canadian title, which means they’ll play in the Champions League again next year. Seeing Toronto at the bottom of the table isn’t necessarily unexpected, but watching them get there in this fashion has been painful. To all you LA Galaxy fans -- know that things could be worse. And to all you Toronto FC fans -- I think everyone hopes your team picks themselves up soon.

At this point in the season, I wouldn’t feel comfortable expecting anything -- except the unexpected. MLS, you really are the league of parity.

Have your expectations proven accurate so far? What’s most surprised you? I didn’t get to every team in the league -- talk to me about yours!

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