As David Beckham prepares to rejoin competitive play in Major League Soccer, the season is entering a critical phase that marks a new era for MLS.
As teams scramble to make the playoffs, the days when eight out of ten teams participated are long gone. Now, with expansion having increased the total number of MLS clubs, with more in the pipeline, the elite eight spots are battled over by a variety of teams.
Even FC Dallas, sitting on an impressive unbeaten streak, hasn’t cracked into one of the guaranteed conference playoff spots yet. The final elimination window will soon start to close on teams, sealing their fate to lose out of the playoffs.
At the top of the heap, the Columbus Crew, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake are all tied on points for the Supporters Shield trophy, given to the regular season leader.
That triumph guarantees the winning team a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League tournament, so it's worthwhile in its own right, though it is not considered the league title, which is awarded to the winner of the MLS playoffs.
While the three Supporters Shield favorites are also top contenders to claim MLS Cup, the playoffs gives new hope to all eight teams involved, as Salt Lake well knows.
Across the pond, however, the situation is more static. The usual suspects of teams are again the ones competing for the titles. In Spain, it’s going to be either Barcelona or Madrid. In Scotland, it’s Rangers or Celtic. In England, it’s very telling that the new coach of Aston Villa, Gerard Houllier, did not make any rash promises of winning the league title - he instead discussed capturing a Champions League place - meaning Villa would have to finish fourth.
However, one idea introduced earlier this year would institute a playoff for the fourth Champions League spot, giving a team as low as seventh place the opportunity to earn a ticket to that coveted tournament.
Regardless of whether that happens, it’s interesting to note that in Europe, between discussions of playoffs and salary caps, there’s some recognition that change is necessary to make the competitive level of leagues abroad, well, competitive.
Meanwhile, MLS’s nonsensical system, which was downright comedic in the eight-of-ten days, is making more sense.
Even with the parity induced by the salary cap, quality is still coming through certain programs noted for stability and supportive organizations.
“Over the past two years, Columbus and LA have been the top teams in terms of the points they’ve accumulated,” noted Galaxy coach Bruce Arena.
Real Salt Lake, however, is proving this season that their MLS Championship last year was no fluke - as young coach Jason Kreis has built a dynamic team that is challenging both LA and Columbus.
Though missing the playoffs comes without the doom-inducing fate of relegation, it is still a blow that usually results in a team shakeup. For teams that have missed the playoffs in multiple years, sometimes an organizational overhaul takes place.
“A lot of teams, it’s the nervous time of the league, especially the teams who are scrambling for a playoff spot,” Arena pointed out.
The MLS playoffs create a system where excitement especially surrounds the teams in the middle of the table - right around the playoff cutoff. In England, the tension focuses on the top (which of the big four will win), and the bottom (who will get relegated). The middle class of the Premeirship is pretty much playing for pride once the last Champions League place slips out of reach.
It's a matter of preference, but there is no doubt that MLS Cup is a realistic carrot which dangles in front of more clubs, and for a longer period, than does the Premier League title.
Given that competition in MLS, it's probably a good thing that Beckham is so eager to return, because there's work to be done.
"I want to get back out there with the guys," Beckham said. "I want to get back out there with the team."
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America and is trying to remember to update her Twitter account.
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