Five keys to the MLS season so far
It's early. It's a long season. It's not how you start, but how you finish.
No matter one's choice of cliché, it's universally understood that the opening weeks of the MLS regular season aren't necessarily a predictor of what lies ahead for the rest of the campaign. At least that's the mantra of Los Angeles Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, whose team is currently in last place in the Western Conference. Ditto for Portland manager John Spencer, who has watched his team cough up second-half leads twice in succession.
But by now, the majority of teams have played at least five games, meaning roughly 15 percent of the campaign is in the books. So let's discern a takeaway -- or five -- as summer approaches.
1. Reputations count for little in Parity World
In preseason, the Galaxy were nearly everyone's choice to not only win their second consecutive MLS Cup, but lap the field in doing so. Evidently, the rest of the league hasn't bought into the hype. The opening weeks have seen L.A. bear a closer resemblance to the 2011 New York Red Bulls than last year's champions. The defense has been leaking goals at an alarming rate, which has coincided with the absence of reigning Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez, who is out with a knee injury. Meanwhile, the attack has looked out of sync and was completely stymied last weekend against Kansas City.
At the other end of the table, San Jose has showed signs of shedding its penchant for mediocrity, surging to a 4-1-0 record. And the Earthquakes aren't even the most improved team in the Western Conference. That accolade belongs to the Vancouver Whitecaps. Under first-year manager Martin Rennie, the team has recorded eight points in five games. That's a full month ahead of last year's pace, and it enhances the league's reputation for unpredictability.
2. Their judgment cometh
Players throughout the league are now on notice. Following a year in which several high-profile performers got injured thanks to dangerous tackles, the MLS Disciplinary Committee has taken it upon itself to hand out punishments after the fact. And the D.C. has been busy this year, retroactively suspending five players for dangerous tackles, and fining another two for diving.
Opinions vary as to whether the D.C. is overstepping its bounds. The decision to suspend New England midfielder Shalrie Joseph for one game for his tackle on FC Dallas midfielder Ricardo Villar has been among the more contentious decisions. But if it has the overall effect of reducing the number of dangerous tackles and protecting the league's more talented players, that can only be a plus.
3. Captivating race shaping up for Golden Boot
New York's forward tandem of Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper has bolted out of the gate, with the Frenchman scoring seven times in his first five games while Cooper has scored six times in the same number of appearances, only three of which were starts. Out west, San Jose's Chris Wondolowski has scored six goals as well, and with other players likely to heat up, too -- like Seattle's David Estrada -- an intriguing race for this year's Golden Boot beckons.
What makes it even more compelling is that it seems unlikely that either Cooper or Wondolowski will be involved in the U.S. national team setup, although given the American side's lack of depth up top, that could change. Still, it seems that the two Americans will be available to chase Henry to the very end.
History could be made in the process, as well. The record for goals scored in a single season was set back in 1996 -- the league's inaugural campaign -- when the Tampa Bay Mutiny's Roy Lassiter tallied 27 times. That occurred during a 30-game regular season, and given the 34-game slate currently utilized by MLS, not to mention the scintillating form of the aforementioned players, this could be the year that the record is broken.
4. Rumblings in the Eastern Conference?
Last year, the Western Conference clearly had the upper hand over its Eastern counterpart. Not only was that where the top four teams points-wise all resided, but in inter-conference play the West sported a 57-47-58 record.
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So far this season, the results are a bit tougher to discern. The Western Conference currently has a 14-10-3 record in inter-conference play, but the vast majority of those games have been held in Western Conference venues, so no broad conclusions can be drawn just yet.
But what is clear is that a new power has arisen in the Eastern Conference, that being Sporting Kansas City. The signs began to reveal themselves at the end of last year, when SKC survived an onerous 10-game road stretch to start the season, and claimed the Eastern Conference regular-season crown. But so far this year, Kansas City has been dominant, and remains the only team in league with a perfect record. SKC doesn't appear to be alone in its improvement, either. New York and Houston have also impressed in the early going, while Chicago may yet make some noise. It all points to the fact the pendulum may at last be swinging back in an eastern direction.
5. Some things never change
In spite of the fact parity remains one of the league's pillars, MLS does have its share of constants. In the Western Conference, Real Salt Lake remains one of the league's model franchises. There were some doubts heading into the season that RSL might be slipping a bit, especially after losing five midfielders in the offseason for a variety of reasons. Instead, RSL's patient grooming of young players has paid off, with the likes of Chris Schuler, Tony Beltran, Paulo Jr. and Luis Gil all contributing mightily to the team's 5-1-0 start. And with RSL getting healthier thanks to the return of Nat Borchers and Javier Morales, the club looks poised to continue its strong level of play.
In the Eastern Conference, fans of Toronto FC would gladly surrender a vital organ or two for even a smidgen of RSL's success and stability. Since the start of the 2007 season, only four teams have never made the MLS playoffs. Three of those are expansion teams -- Montreal, Portland and Vancouver -- that have entered the league in the past year. The other is Toronto FC, which despite upsetting L.A. in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League has stumbled to a 0-4-0 mark in league play.
Easily the most perplexing of the club's struggles is its inability to construct an MLS-level defense. Vancouver appears to have successfully retooled its back line with Martin Bonjour and Y.P. Lee, while the addition of Victor Bernardez in San Jose has solidified things for the Quakes. Yet Toronto has struggled to find the same level of quality reinforcements. Torsten Frings brings plenty of experience and guile, but there's only so much that can be expected from the former German international. Until some quality defensive help arrives, another season outside the playoff places looks to be in store for Toronto.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.
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