Remember back in the days of yore (this past March), when Minnesota United was outscored 11-2 over their first two games of the season? Yeah, they were the talk of the town for all the wrong reasons. The general thought was they would be the worst expansion franchise ever and fans would avoid TCF Bank Stadium like the plague.
MLS Predictions and Early Stories are Meaningless
Atlanta United was making headlines around the same time for the exact opposite reason. The provider of six of those 11 Minnesota goals conceded were flying high. The narrative around them was that they would be the best expansion franchise since the Chicago Fire won the whole darn thing in after only two seasons. Atlanta would be the “Seattle of the South” and take over all the headlines throughout the league.
Oh how times have changed.
Minnesota United has since proved they are more than just a cool logo. The Loons just blanked one of the top teams in MLS and have won two of their last three while only giving up only one goal. Atlanta United, on the other hand, has dropped three of their last four, including one match where D.C. United scored thrice on them. The two teams, who seemed polar opposites two months ago, are now level on points with 11 and, if you take away the 6-1 Atlanta drubbing in the Minnesota snow, are only separated by five goals of goal difference.
This continues to show that there are two immutable facts about MLS: you can’t predict it, and you can’t jump to conclusions after only a couple games.
You Can’t Predict MLS
Let’s look back at this past weekend for some of these foolish predictions. Philadelphia Union won their first game of the season in emphatic fashion over the red hot New York Red Bulls. Sure, the Red Bulls played a midweek match in Kansas City, but they used a rotated squad in that match and figured to be healthy enough to take down the lowly Union. Zero of the geniuses that write here at Last Word on Soccer got this one right.
San Jose Earthquakes had scored more than one goal in a game exactly once this season. That was in week two against a Vancouver Whitecaps team that had their goalkeeper sent off early in the first half and had a big Champions League tie to prepare for the next week. They welcomed in the Portland Timbers and their high flying attack and promptly bagged three goals on their way to a fourth consecutive clean sheet. Again, none of us Last Worders saw this one coming.
Then there is Sporting Kansas City showing a glaring lack of defensive depth against Minnesota United on Sunday. You’d think even backup MLS players would be able to hold down an expansion franchise made up of former NASL stars, but what do we know? Not only that, but Sporting’s talented attack was held off the scoresheet by a defense that was once heralded to be the worst in the known universe. Props to Noah Sobel-Pressman for standing out as the only one of us to get this result correct in the picks.
I could go on about how results like this happen every week, but I’ll spare you. It’s just safe to say that coming up with predictions for MLS matches is a fool’s errand and we shouldn’t bother with it. That would be no fun, however, so we carry on with our weekly pick ’ems anyway.
And Don’t Bother With Early Season Narrative
We also need to avoid looking at small sample sizes when judging the true ability of a team. Sizzling hot takes may make for exciting television viewing, but those are low on intelligence and often push the narrative in the wrong direction.
Here are three early season stories that were stamped down rather quickly. Minnesota’s historically bad defense was repaired with a smart trade for Colorado’s Sam Cronin as a defensive shield. Atlanta’s speedy South American front line was derailed by injuries and they’ve lost some winnable games. The Red Bulls went through a tactical shift to restore confidence after low scoring start, went on a three game win streak that made them look like MLS Cup contenders, and were subsequently shot down by a brutal midweek MLS match.
The MLS standings swing back and forth all season long. In fact, there’s no time when you can look at the league table and come up with any sort of conclusion on a team’s credentials. Last season saw Seattle Sounders win MLS Cup after bringing up the rear for the entire league in the middle of summer. This season, the Earthquakes have gone from nearly firing their coach to a pair of decisive victories and sitting three points from the top of the West over the course of two weeks.
MLS is very much a league driven by recent form. The best team in MLS is the best team over the last few weeks. This is a because of salary cap hampered rosters that lack depth and get roasted by midweek games in multiple competitions. This is because the difference between the best teams and the worst teams is minimal thanks to Byzantine roster rules that encourage parity.
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s maybe a little infuriating as a league pundit. We like simple conclusions and crafting stories about a team’s strengths, weakness, and their seasons’ direction, and MLS doesn’t allow us to do that. We will never know anything about these teams, and their strengths, weakness, and direction, until things come to a close. Even then, don’t expect any of those conclusions to carry over to the next season. Just ask LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, Montreal Impact, or Philadelphia Union.