For years there has been a perceived notion that MLS teams have, on average, a three year window of success.
This success is very objective, however, as it all depends on the supporters’ view of success. In truth, every team’s definition of success is very different. For Toronto it would be making the playoffs for the first time, while Seattle Sounders would enjoy making it into the MLS Cup Final; and success to LA Galaxy is nothing short of winning the MLS Cup.
Despite the different measuring sticks of success in MLS, there is a cycle that encapsulates the league. The league’s financial rules, or sometimes restrictions, is the major factor in this cycle of success. When the league was founded in the early 1990s, the idea of parity was an important cornerstone of the league. So much so, that the league’s every decision is made with parity in mind.
Since then we have seen 10 different teams win the MLS Cup in 17 years. Over half the league have now, at one time or another, lifted the most prestigious trophy in MLS, deservedly or not – Colorado Rapids. From the fantastic DC United dynasty in the early years to Houston in the noughties to LA Galaxy’s most recent triumphs, there is a window that’s ever opening and closing for MLS clubs.
In the 2012 season, DC United fans saw their window re-open as the club made the playoffs for the first time since 2007. San Jose also saw a return of success at Buck Shaw Stadium. The Earthquakes won the Supporters’ Shield, though they were knocked out of the playoffs by eventual winners LA Galaxy, and hope to continue their good fortunes in 2013.
At the same time, some clubs may have seen their window closing or slammed shut. Real Salt Lake, a team that never quite fulfilled their potential after winning the 2010 MLS Cup, have already traded away several of their key players of the past few years. Jamison Olave, Will Johnson and Fabian Espindola have been dealt away from the club this off-season in an attempt to make salary-cap space.
These three players will definitely leave a large whole in the team and losing three players of their caliber could stop the club from reaching the standards RSL have met in recent times.
With 19 teams currently in the league and more on the way, there could be an argument that this cycle will come to an end in the future. While some clubs have proven to be good at evaluating and developing college draft picks, others have spent more time shopping for players outside of North America.
With more teams entering MLS, the talent pool is stretched even thinner. Each team filling out a 20-man-plus roster will become even more difficult as the league continues to grow.
No matter how players enter the league, in the end, the best should gravitate to the better teams. For example, teams such as Toronto, New England and Chivas should – technically – have difficulty signing quality players and keeping them on their rosters – if they don’t already. However, this is where MLS steps in and the various rules, such as salary-cap, prevent it from completely happening; keeping MLS from becoming like the leagues in Europe and more of a North America structure.
This won’t prevent clubs like Toronto, New England and Chivas – or another down on their luck club – from becoming what in Europe is known as a selling club. Moving players on and keeping the wage bill relatively low, and hoping to maximize profit with whatever results may come. Again, MLS has rules in place that keep teams from needing to do this and this is only an example.
MLS’s ability to be wide open is one of the biggest draws of the league. Soccer fans tired of seeing the same teams finish top of the league year-after-year have an incentive to follow MLS. The 2013 season will be the league’s 18th, and another club will see their window opening or closing?
Columbus put themselves in a great position to return to past glories, meanwhile, it could be a club like the Galaxy that could have a fall off if they lose anymore of their star names. The MLS cycle is real and it can’t be stopped, just contained.