Anyone around MLS for the last few years, from coaches to players to paying customers, can tell you how appreciably the overall quality of play has improved. The collective standard, measurably better than five years ago, is virtually unrecognizable compared to most matches from the late 1990s.
Some of the improvement is simply about better players, of course. Some is about strong coaching links all along the domestic soccer chain, which is producing superior young talent. Plus, the organizations that make up MLS are just figuring things out, settling on best practices for this and that.
But much of the improved standard is down to something else: Some of it is just "math." Here's the important number involved: 16.
That's how many teams are competing for eight playoff spots. By next year, that figure will rise to 18 as Portland and Vancouver come aboard (probably with packed houses, a la Seattle). Simply put, it's harder to make the playoffs now, and that's bumping up the standard for everything about the league
This weekend tells you everything you need to know. August has usually been something of a wasteland in MLS. The energy of the early season is kaput, and the playoff stretch has yet to commence in earnest. Particularly damaging to the August product was a forgiving playoff structure. Just three years ago, there were only 14 teams competing for eight playoff spots. Five years ago, there were but 12 sides. In 2004, only 10 teams filled out the league roster. Imagine that: An entire, seven-month regular season just to eliminate two clubs. Precious few matches could be earnestly labeled "vital." And certainly none in August.
But those days of competitive leniency are mercifully over -- even if it took a little while for the previous mind-set to completely evaporate. Even a couple of years ago, as the percentage of teams booking postseason passage shrank, too many contests weren't so bitterly contested in August. By late September, as the desperation and realization kicked in? Yes. But not in August.
Now everyone gets it. Or so it seems. We're past only the two-thirds mark of the regular season but desperation fills the grounds. Three teams, D.C. United, Philadelphia and Chivas USA, are all but mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. In August! (The regular season goes through Oct. 24.)
Rarely have teams truly been out of contention in August. But more players seem to get it now: Every game really does count. It's no longer just something the players say. Those at the bottom of the standings have been scrappy through August, making life difficult on the opposition -- which makes everyone better and creates more intense matches.
FC Dallas coach
That kind of true intensity, week in, week out, makes everyone better. Look at Houston.
You hear about so-called "six-pointers"? The term gets a bit overused, but Saturday's game certainly will be for Kinnear and Co. The Rapids are a team Houston can still possibly catch. Claim the three points, swipe a potential three from Colorado and the Dynamo players surely have done themselves a solid. A six-point solid.
Same for New England, where
There wasn't always sufficient incentive to really push for improvements in previous years. Why expand the scouting budget or hire more coaches, etc., when your side is making the playoffs regularly as it is?
Oh, and if Houston and New England and anyone else look at things over the next two or three weeks and determine they are out of the playoffs, they'll make lineup and personnel decisions in September that will better the cause for 2011. That never happened before in MLS in September.
Ironically, some media analysts and fans worried that hurried expansion (the league will go from 10 teams to 18 in seven years) would dilute quality. That simply hasn't happened. First, there's literally a world of talent out there to be had. And adding all that hyped, high-end talent in the designated player initiative makes the surrounding talent that much better.
But mostly, it's this relevant math that should silence any alarm bells over quick expansion. Next year, for the first time, more teams will miss the playoffs than make. (That's assuming the postseason structure remains the same, and there seems to be little sentiment to hand out more than eight invitations.)
I once talked to Houston veteran
I remember thinking: When MLS games from front to back, from April to October, are like that, this will be a different product. Everything about MLS will improve dramatically.
I'm seeing that more and more in MLS now -- that desperation and pressure that squeezes the best from every player, from every team. More importantly, I'm seeing it in August. And the domestic game is wearing it well.