Success of Chicago, Toronto shows MLS clubs must adapt or be left behind
It has been a strangely undefined MLS season so far. Or at least, there has been a sense that traditional balances of power no longer hold sway, even as it remains unclear exactly where or how the new power bases are going to develop.
Of course, there has been the much-noted shift of emphasis from West to East, with Chicago and Toronto looking like the two class teams of the league. Even the Western front-runners, FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City, are as notable for their flaws as for their virtues; even before Dom Dwyer's move to Orlando, it was apparent that lack of goals could undo Sporting's promising start, and Dallas under Oscar Pareja continue to play with inexplicable lapses of concentration that don't bode well for two-legged playoff series, whether or not Cristian Colman continues his early form.
If there's another trend, perhaps, it has been the consolidation of the teams that arrived in MLS' second decade and, in some cases, something of a drift among the MLS originals.
A quick caveat here: Forced parity means that fortunes change quickly in MLS -- you wouldn't have seen the line "Chicago and Toronto looking the two class teams of the league" two or three seasons ago -- so it's dangerous to extrapolate too much from the on-field fortunes of a team in any given season.
That said, fortunes tend to rise and fall in more predictable fashion and over longer timeframes these days. The arrival of the Targeted Allocation Money mechanism has increased teams' abilities to strategically deepen their rosters for longer periods of time. You are less likely to see those "Brigadoon" seasons when teams coalesce out of nowhere, like San Jose in 2012, or even the way New England's moving parts suddenly and, as it turned out, temporarily slotted into place with the arrival of Jermaine Jones midway through the 2014 season.
For that matter, you're likely to see fewer worst-to-first transformations of the type D.C. United managed in going from the worst-ever MLS season in 2013 to winning the Eastern Conference in 2014. Or if you do, watch carefully what happens next and why.
Chicago's current similar "transformation" was built on a tough transitional year last season, when some clever horse-trading in the draft for young defensive talent that Veljko Paunovic then played put them into the position where there was a sustainable context to add to the marquee players they acquired this offseason. Just as Toronto have built steadily to the point where their depth is as impressive as their top-tier talent, Chicago is trying to build something sustainable. It might not have felt like it at the time, but 2016 was a good season for them.
The Fire and Toronto are also somewhat distinct in that they're both expansion teams who had to catch a second wind after their initial dramatic momentum stalled. The Fire were an instant competitive success whose supporters wrote a significant early chapter in the story of MLS supporter culture; Toronto was the team whose 2007 arrival in the league, with MLSE money and instant mass support, heralded the arrival of MLS 2.0. Both tailed off to something like complete irrelevance before their recent renaissances, and both have found that there is no substitute for not only finding the right pieces but also putting them together in the right order.
We're still in the age of rapid expansion of the league, so splashy arrivals and paradigm-shifting organizations have begun to feel like the norm, but when we look past the froth of those moments and consider the longer-term history of the league, it's fascinating to see how the teams that followed Toronto into the league have been altered by experience. In general, there's plenty of sample size to go on, and arguably it's those reactions to adversity that say more about the long-term viability of these organizations than how big a splash they make when they arrive.
The Portland Timbers, for example, were a team that stood out as the montage-friendly poster child for expansion; their fervent crowd packing a downtown stadium became the blueprint MLS wanted prospective expansion suitors to follow. But the first version of the team was terrible on the road, and for a moment, it almost seemed like the Timbers were destined to become something of a novelty act.
However, by the time the team won MLS Cup in 2015, the organization had learned its lessons. The Timbers' road record still might not have been the most impressive in the league, but they had tightened overall to the point where they didn't lose back-to-back games regardless of travel circumstances, and by the time they'd backed into the playoffs, they might not have been the most talented roster going for the Cup, but they were for sure the deepest and most dogged.
The Philadelphia Union, meanwhile, have consistently flirted with taking their own fanbase for granted while nickel-and-dime-ing on the roster and leaving their coaches exposed to the consequences. Time will tell if Earnie Stewart's MLS version of Moneyball improves them -- on paper the roster is the best it has ever been -- but in a way, there's only so much he and coach Jim Curtin can do. The owners have to demonstrate that they have learned the lessons of the Nick Sakiewicz era, or the Union could be headed for the type of long, slow drift that has marked the likes of New England and latterly D.C. United.
Both the latter two teams are MLS originals rather than expansion teams, but of course every expansion team poses a question of every other team around them, sometimes an intimate one that challenges everything they thought they knew about themselves and their territory. The New York Red Bulls could currently tell LA Galaxy a thing or two about that.
And if there's a principle that applies to both originals and newbies alike it's this: adapt or die.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.