In MLS, The Smartest Team Wins

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The games are not fair. Sort of like life.

For instance, in the NBA, the best players gang up and go to one of eight or so teams. In the MLB, the Yankees payroll makes that of half their competitors look like pocket change. In European soccer, the land of oil oligarchs and Saudi princes, Manchester City is playing for first. Wigan are playing for 17th.

The NFL and NHL are better, but there are still haves and have nots. In NASCAR, the drives with the powerhouse teams compete for championships. In horseracing, it’s the powerhouse breeders.

This isn’t even to mention college sports, where the great divide between big programs and small programs in money, support, and facilities is laughable.

The games aren’t fair. There are no completely level playing fields in team sports, as hard as we may try to balance things out. There are just certain advantages that come with playing in LA that don’t come with playing in Columbus, certain disadvantages that come with being owned by a self-made business man rather than a sheik.

But there’s one exception to the rule. Major League Soccer. MLS is the one league where smarts and creativity mean more than location and financial status. Just ask the Portland Timbers.

Winning in MLS is hard. The league salary cap is claustrophobic, at a minuscule 2.95 million dollars. It’s a hard cap, but it’s littered with enough loopholes to make the tax code look like child’s play.

Part of the reason MLS has such a low salary cap is because after watching the NASL go boom and then bust, MLS is being overly cautious, and making sure they don’t overreach as a league. But it sure makes parity and competitive soccer. With only 2.95 million dollars to spend on an entire roster, the teams run by the smartest people will rise to the top. There’s no room for error. The LA Galaxy may attract big-name players, but with so little money to spend, they can’t sign all of them. There are no New York Cosmos in MLS.

Sure, the big teams in MLS will get big-name Designated Players, but there are only three DP spots, and they take up precious room under the cap. All the teams in MLS are trying to build a team from the same talent pool. Whoever can stitch a squad together with so many difficult constraints will win. It’s as simple as that.

LA is seen as the standard-barer of Major League Soccer, but when David Beckham first came stateside, things weren’t all that rosy. Ruud Gullit was the LA manager, and while Gullit was a special player, he didn’t have the patience or wherewithal to work under MLS’s stingy conditions.

Gullit wanted to build a super-team, and that’s just not possible in MLS. He didn’t understand the rules, and he didn’t want to work with them. The Dutchman only lasted half a season. When he was sacked, the Galaxy were in last place. Then LA brought in Bruce Arena, the most accomplished American coach ever, someone who thrived working with the MLS salary cap.

In just two years, Arena had LA in the MLS Cup Final. Three years later, Beckham exited as a back-to-back MLS Champion. The main reason the Galaxy won was because they had the best players. But the Galaxy didn’t have the best players because they play in LA, they had the best players because they got the best guy to construct their team.

More than 10 years before at DC United, Arena won two MLS Cups, a US Open Cup, and a CONCACAF Champions Cup. In MLS, cities don’t win titles. Coaches and GMs do.

Sigi Schmid, the current Sounders coach was a champion in Columbus. He went to Seattle, and his team has never missed the playoffs. It’s refreshing – the smallest teams in the league know that they can win MLS Cup. They just have to put smart people in the right places.

It’s not that easy in the NBA, for example. Are you really telling me that Frank Vogel and Eric Spolstra were the two best coaches in the Eastern Conference this season?

All the owners in MLS can easily afford the 2.95 million dollars to spend on their players. It’s as level a playing field as you are going to see in team sports. The Timbers are a great example.

In their first two seasons in the league, with Gavin Wilkinson and John Spencer running the team, the Timbers splashed cash on poor players, had imbalanced teams and left positions without adequate cover. This year, Caleb Porter comes in with new ideas, a fresh system for evaluating players, and the Timbers jump to the top of MLS.

That’s how the Timbers skipped rebuilding. They hired one of the smartest, hardest working coaches in the business. Portland plucked Diego Valeri out of Argentina – that’s just good scouting, who had ever heard of Valeri in the USA before this year?

The Timbers worked Real Salt Lake’s tight cap to their advantage, turning Lovel Palmer into Will Johnson. They swiftly cut Kris Boyd’s big contract, signed Mikael Silvestre, shuffled some different pieces, and made themselves a winner.

All it took was innovation and wits. Almost any team in MLS could have had most of the players the Timbers signed this year, one way or another. But the Timbers have smarter people in charge, and because this is MLS, Portland has a real chance to win the championship this season and become a perennial contender in the league.

Porter made all the difference. Just one man, in one position, took Portland from worst to first. Welcome to MLS. May the smartest team win.

Alright guys, I don't believe I have to say this but, just in case, please do not submit anything racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise not appropriate for even the younger Timbers fans.

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