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Are the 2011 Galaxy the best MLS team ever?

With their 1-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo yesterday, the Galaxy reached their season-long goal of winning an MLS Cup and certain high-profile players notched their first North American championship.  Anytime a team wins a championship, writers and bloggers take to the keyboard to assess where that team or franchise fits in the pantheon of previous winners.

This writer is no different, and for the first time in a few years we have to seriously consider how the 2011 Galaxy stack up against the best of the best in MLS (albeit short) history.  The last two MLS Cup winners (RSL and Colorado) arguably slid into the championship game due to playoff format rather than on-field success, so it has been a while since we’ve had a top regular season club win the Cup.

Ultimately it is impossible to compare this era of MLS to the first few years.  With fewer teams and different rules, can the 2011 Galaxy be compared to the early DC United teams that fielded so many USMNT players, or even the 1998 Galaxy or similar successful teams?  Even Bruce Arena didn’t tip his hand, telling reporters prior to last night’s game: “Couldn’t even compare it [his DC and LA teams].  I don’t even know how you do that.”

But the impressive run for the Galaxy demands we place them in a historical context.  So are the 2011 Galaxy the best team in MLS history?  A few points to consider:

  • Their 67 regular season points is the most ever in a post-shoot out season and they finished 5-0 in the playoffs.  They allowed fewer goals than games played (28 total)
  • Arguably the Galaxy have the best MLS player ever on its roster, as well as the best international (I’ll define that as non-North American) ever to play in MLS.  With his fourth MLS Cup, Landon Donovan joins an elite group of players with four rings and if he continues to play in MLS and score the way he has, he will eclipse Jeff Cunningham as the league’s all-time leading scorer.  And while Beckham has been rightfully criticized for his lack of commitment to the league based on his salary and expectations, when healthy and committed he has been an unstoppable force for LA.
  • While the three designated players get the press, it’s the role players that really propelled this team.  The stout back line led by future USMNT call-up (right?) Omar Gonzalez was a key to the Galaxy being able to play their cobra-like quick strike and down offense.  Juninho was a quality acquisition who gave them some game-winners during the season.  And forwards like Mike Magee and Chad Barrett while not world beaters were the roll players that any successful team needs to be, well, successful.
  • The travel.  With 18 teams in the league and a balanced schedule, the Galaxy faced more travel than any previous MLS winner within the league.  Outside of the league, the Galaxy faced even more mileage with the competitive CONCACAF Champions group stage, meaning this veteran team spent a lot of time in the air traveling.  This certainly makes it harder to play at a high level on the road and while other MLS champions have also booked lots of mileage, few I wager would have put in the travel of LA.
  • Statistically, the Galaxy’s season makes a strong case.  According to Grant Wahl’s stat work, LA had the third best points-per-game season ever in MLS, behind two teams that did not win an MLS Cup (LA ’98 and San Jose ’05).  The metric is the number of points for the season divided by number of games played, with Wahl adjusting for shoot-outs in the early years.  So according to this metric, a regular season that ended with the Supporters Shield looks even better.