D.C. United turnaround illustrates MLS’ structural flaws

The opening of the brand-new, soccer-specific Audi Field in July helped flip the trajectory of D.C. United’s season. United, who in June sat dead last in the standings, earned a playoff spot on Oct. 21. Courtesy of dcnerd via Flickr.

The perfect storm has been brewing in the streets of Washington, D.C.—and no, this storm is not tremendously big and tremendously wet. This storm is black and red and threatens more than just eastern coastal cities.

A new stadium, the return of a capable defensive midfielder and goalkeeper and the signing of Wayne Rooney have all had a hand in D.C. United’s complete turnaround in Major League Soccer (MLS). At the start of June, United sat dead last in the standings, so tepid and dilapidated that even qualification for the MLS playoffs seemed out of the question.

Yet this past Sunday, Oct. 21, the team beat New York City FC to earn itself a playoff berth, with a game to spare. This miraculous turnaround has placed the rest of the league on alert; not only are D.C.’s new signings dangerous, but the entire team is also red hot and on a roll.

What D.C.’s success has highlighted is that MLS is far more forgiving of missteps and poor form than other professional leagues. For a team that won just two of their first 16 games and sat dead last in the league in June to turn around over the next couple months and make the playoffs suggests that the first half of the MLS season might as well be irrelevant. The opening few months of D.C.’s campaign were essentially an extended warm up for the team as they awaited the opening of the new stadium and the club’s new signings.

This lack of bite—this lack of cut-throat competitiveness throughout the season—leaves room for complacency. While I’m sure that no team in the MLS ever approaches a game with the mindset of “We’re doing well right now, it wouldn’t hurt us if we lost this one game,” the amount of wiggle room does seem to diminish the level of competition.

What if the league eliminated this wiggle room? Would MLS be more competitive and entertaining?

I believe so. Look at the English Premier League (EPL) for comparison: The EPL markets itself as the most competitive league in the world. This is, in all likelihood, true. The “top six”—Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea—always form the group of assumed title contenders, and between these six teams the competition is always fierce and unforgiving.

But even these six are not guaranteed the title. In 2016, an outsider, Leicester City—previously a mid to low-level club—famously won the Premier League against almost insurmountable odds. But even then, Leicester had to wait until their penultimate game of the season to secure the title. Every single game in Leicester’s title-winning season was crucial—had the team faltered at any stage, they would not have accomplished their miraculous feat.

MLS lacks this environment of relentless competition. Part of this absence may be due to the existence of the playoffs themselves. Unlike the majority of other professional soccer leagues, the “regular season” in the MLS is merely the prerequisite jostling for coveted playoff berths.

A single-elimination bracket then declares the champion.

Theoretically, playoffs offer the best teams over the course of the season a blank slate and pits them against one another to determine a champion. What the theory fails to take into account, however, is that wildly inconsistent teams can squeeze in at the end. This is exactly what D.C. United is doing.

Rather than building steam over the course of the season, maintaining consistent form and earning a spot in the playoffs, United has somehow passed the test after pulling an all-nighter—and not without some serious help. First of all, moving to the brand-new Audi field gave United a new home and fresh confidence.

Second, the return of Russell Canouse and Bill Hamid solidified a United defense which had been leaky at best during the first half of the season. Finally, and most importantly, the signing of “el Señor Wayne” (as teammate Luciano Acosta affectionately calls Wayne Rooney) radically improved the team’s overall performance in the past three months.

D.C. United is the only unbeaten team in the MLS since Sept. 1. Their place in the playoffs seems a just reward for such an impressive streak. However, this bounty derives from a playoff system that appears overwhelmingly generous and forgiving when compared with other professional leagues.

As soccer lovers look to develop and grow the game in the United States, we should take the concerns about the level of competition in MLS raised by D.C.’s remarkable turnaround seriously. The red and black United storm has brought excitement to D.C. and the league in general, yet we should question the merits of a system in which such remarkable about-faces are possible.

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