Commentary: The thin red line that determines success and failure in MLS – even in early going
I am fascinated by the red line.
It consumes me from the beginning of the Major League Soccer season to the end. Or at least until all the playoff spots have been decided.
The red line on the MLS Standings page, of course, denotes which teams would make the playoffs, and which teams would fall short, if the postseason started today. It seems most do not pay attention to the red line until the final month of the season, but not me.
I follow the red line the same way I follow things like the Champions League slots and the relegation battles in the European leagues. I look at it this way: Making the playoffs in MLS means your season has a measure of success. Missing the playoffs is failure.
Sure, there might be a team who will make the playoffs this year, get upset by a lower seed in the first-round, and look back on the season as a complete failure. But that would be like saying what happens between now and November is meaningless.
That's far from the truth.
In fact, I'm here to tell you that, today, it's not too early to start paying attention – as I do – to the red line and the race for the 10 spots in the MLS playoffs.
With the assistance of the Elias Sports Bureau, I've gone back five years, to the approximate point in the season where we stand today. Approximate because not every team has played the same number of games. Thus we based our research on the point in the season during which the average number of games played by all the teams was six.
Here are the teams who went from out-of-the-playoffs at this point in the season to ultimately making the playoffs at season's end:
2012: In the East, the Chicago Fire. In the West, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the LA Galaxy. So, while many people will point to the fact that the Galaxy went from eighth place to champions, I note that seven of 10 playoffs positions were established.
2011: Sporting Kansas City got off to a bad start and sat in last place in the Eastern Conference at the "six-game" mark, and went on to win the conference title. They were also the only one of 10 eventual playoff teams not above the red line at this point.
2010: Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas fought their way up from below the red line to make the eight-team playoffs. The other six playoffs teams were all established at this point.
2009: A banner year for slow starting teams. The Columbus Crew, Houston Dynamo and LA Galaxy managed to climb from below the red line into the playoffs. Still, at this point in the season, five of the eight playoff teams were already in position.
2008: Half of the eight playoff teams rose from below the "six-game" red line. Those teams were the New York Red Bulls, Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake and the Houston Dynamo. Still, in the East, teams like Columbus, Chicago, Kansas City and New England had already established the tone that they'd be playoff teams come November.
So, returning to the present, the red line and this weekend's MLS games, which will put us at the "six-game" mark. You might want to pay close attention to:
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Vancouver Whitecaps: What else to say, except the red line is all that divides the Quakes and the 'Caps?
Sporting Kansas City vs. D.C. United: Ben Olsen's United know that anything less than three points will keep them below the red line for at least another week.
Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls: Winless Chicago stand five points below the line and the Red Bulls, while just a point below the line, are looking for their first road win.
Toronto FC vs. FC Dallas: The mission is clear for Toronto and that's to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. First things first, get above the red line.
Colorado Rapids vs. Real Salt Lake: It's on the Rapids. If they're still on two points at week's end, the red line will rise on them.
Draw your own conclusions, or not. But I've got my eye on the line.