May 11, 2012

Can The MLS Have an "Invincibles?"

In the 2003-2004 Premier League season, Arsenal accomplished something that had not been done in top flight football in over 100 years, they went an entire season without losing a game.  Winning 26 games and drawing 12 games, the Gunners of that year, behind 30 goals by Thierry Henry and another 14 by fellow Frenchman Robert Pires, and led the (economics) professor Arsene Wenger, put together a roster and a season that will remain part of Premier League lore for decades to come.

Earlier this MLS season began when Sporting Kansas City went on an seven game winning streak to open the season.  With an well-balanced, energetic 4-3-3, head coach Peter Vermes put forth an exciting brand of soccer that was fun to watch and made everyone wonder what could be done to stop them.  But no one seriously thought that Vermes' boys would go undefeated in the season, although it would have been nice to see Sporting go nine or ten games without a loss.  Sadly, a visit to JELD-WEN field in Portland put an end to their run.  

But the question does arise, in a league premised on parity as the MLS is, where a club cannot buy itself a title (see Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid), can the MLS produce an "Invincibles?"  The answer is clearly yes, it is theoretically possible, but what would it take?  Here are a few of the obstacles:

1.  Travel.  The English Premier League takes place in a an country where the longest trip that Arsenel had to take is perhaps 400 miles.  In the United States, most teams have to travel far more than that for EVERY game.  The exceptions would be the DC-Philly-New York trio and Portland-Seattle-Vancouver corridor and the Dallas-Houston, but there is regular east-west travel of six to seven hours and 3000+miles.  

2.  Roster and Salary Caps.  Until recently, there was no real limit  on what clubs could pay players in the Premier League (and may not realistically be one now) and there isn't really any now, so long as they abide by the Financial Fair Play rules and rules regarding home grown players.  MLS has a roster cap and that is a fact of life, so in addition to managing roster size, age, types of players, number of foreign players, a head coach and a GM have to manage the payroll size.

3.  Weather.  Have you ever been to Houston in August?  What about Montreal, Tornoto, Chicago or Salt Lake City in November?  Enough said.

Sure, there are other obstacles, but that is not the point of this post.  What would it take for a MLS club to go undefeated?  A combination of factors would have to be present along with a healthy dose of luck (and lets be honest, Arsenal had a fair helping of luck to achieve their feat).  So besides luck, what would be needed?

1.  A Coach with Flexibility.  Traditionally, we have thought of coaches as either  a "man manager" or  a"system man."  But in order for a team to go a 34, 36, or 38 game season without losing, the coach is going to have to be flexible with his personnel and most importantly his tactics and team set up.  This coach may need to be willing to tweak his formation as well as rotating players to meet his needs as a manager to counter his opponents, strategically and tactically.  The willingness to play a variety of formations, a 4-4-2, 4-1-3-2, 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, even from game to game as the opponent, his squad availability, and situation requires, means that coaches have to inculcate tactical flexibility in the squads and even the manager's own thinking.  There are a couple of managers that I can see as having this quality:  Bruce Arena, Jason Kreis, Dominic Kinnear and maybe Ben Olsen.  

2.  Roster Depth AND Breadth.  Let's face it, in a parity league, the best squad is going to be one where, from  the highest paid Designated Player to the most recent draft pick, every single player is going to have to contribute.  Maybe not on the pitch but on the training ground, pushing and competing for starting slots.  Only with quality from top to bottom is a team gonna be able to make through the dog days of summer.  That is depth.  By breadth, I mean that that the players on a team have to be prepared to fill more than one role.  Whether is a midfielder being called on to play outside back or a striker being asked to play more withdrawn or a wing back needing to play inside, players need to have skill and the confidence to play where ever they are asked in what ever situation is presented.  So the players need to be flexible.  But to build a squad like this, means that the GM and the head coach are going to need to balance salaries, experience, player abilities, age, and all the factors necessary to make a squad that can compete and win no matter who is on the pitch.

3.  Mental Fortitude.  One of the biggest problems in the MLS over the history of the league is the mental fragility of teams either early in a game or late in a game.  How many goals just this season have been scored in the last 10 minutes of a game?  (San Jose anyone?) Having the mental strength to focus on every second of every game will be necessary.  Let's face it, sooner or later, even the best teams are going to have to come from behind to grab a point.  That means a team cannot, as a group, get rattled.  The team has to deal with the home field advantage when they are on the road, particularly in places like Portland, Seattle and Kansas City.  They have to keep working no matter what has happened.  Similarly, there are going to be times when a team has to grind out a 0-1 win on the road or maintain a 2-2 draw in order to secure the point.  

4.  Fitness.  Really, having a fit squad (not just injury free which is as much a function of luck as a good training room staff) will keep players available.  Injuries happen, but managing the fitness of players will always be key.

Winning or drawing 38 games is not a fluke, although there is luck involved.  What is necessary is to create the luck or make it possible for the squad to accomplish the goal.  It is a long, grueling season, but I think it can be done.  In a league that is probably the most internally competitive in the world, having an Invicibles will be the greatest achievement ever in this league.  But how exciting would that be.

In the U.S. sports landscape, it would, I think, be better than the 1972 Miami Dolphins.  They only had to win 17 games with a roster of 60+ players who were specialists in their position.  A MLS club has 25 players who have to be fit and flexible for twice as many games.  Take that American football.

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