Have you seen the Supporters’ Shield table today?
That is one crowded thoroughfare: There are just five points separating the 1st-place team from the 10th-place club.
That 10th-place side, FC Dallas, sat atop the table not too long ago, and considering the tight grouping, a return trip to the summit is not out of the question. Two places behind Dallas in 12th are the Houston Dynamo, last year’s Eastern Conference champs, who are only seven points behind current Shield pacesetters Real Salt Lake.
Yes, parity is alive and well in MLS, Year 18.
Following closely (how else?) behind Houston are the talented Seattle Sounders in 13th place (with games in hand), then the Chicago Fire and last year's Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes, both of whom still harbor realistic playoff hopes, like all of the teams ahead of them.
The conference standings show 15 of 19 clubs still in postseason contention with about a third of the season to go (16 if you count injury-riddled Columbus, though the Crew have dropped five of their last six).
It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s too much parity. But the downsides of the league’s most prominent characteristic (shortage of Goliaths – and Davids; inconsistent results), pale in comparison to the joys of MLS parity. Such as…
Forget Beating the Traffic
The Week 22 results both demonstrated the league’s competitive balance and increased it: Seven of the round’s nine games were decided by one goal, one ended in a tie, and one finished 2-0 (and they all tightened the conference standings as if by Phillips head screwdriver).
There were thrilling late goals in Toronto, New York, Montreal and Vancouver that reminded spectators they “better not be Miami Heat fans and leave before the final whistle,” in the words of Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty.
WATCH: NY's 4-3 comeback win vs. RSL
McCarty and his teammates, fresh from a listless and goalless draw against stragglers Toronto, pulled off a wild, 4-3 win against first-place Real Salt Lake. The teams combined for four goals in the last 10 minutes of the game – the final one coming on a diving header from McCarty in the 94th minute.
In their meeting with Eastern Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City, Montreal got a goal from rookie Blake Smith in the seventh minute of stoppage time to pull off a stunning 1-0 win and shake off a five-game winless skid.
North of the border, Toronto FC rallied for a 2-1 win over Columbus in a riveting, rain-soaked finish that featured an 87th-minute goal from Rookie of the Year candidate Jonathan Osorio and a 94th-minute strike from Andrew Wiedeman.
The fantastic finish was just reward for the team – and for their core of diehard fans who stayed to the end despite the severe downpour.
On the other side of Canada, Vancouver lost midfielder Jun Marques Davidson to a red card in the eighth minute, but battled gamely till the 85th, when Philadelphia broke through for a goal that sent the Whitecaps to their first home defeat of the season.
Another intriguing feature to MLS parity: the cellar dwellers can always jump up and bite you on a given day.
Toronto FC lead the way in this department. Their win over Columbus was the Reds’ first home victory in more than a year, and it snapped a six-game winless streak for Ryan Nelsen’s men. But despite those drab stats, TFC are looking less and less like a pushover these days. They landed that tie versus New York last week, and they’ve freed up a lot of cap space recently to go after new players, one of which they signed this week (Spanish midfielder Alvaro Rey).
WATCH: Toronto pulls off miracle win vs. Crew
Don’t expect them to make a miraculous run, but they haven’t thrown in the towel by any means, and they’ll relish playing the spoiler role down the stretch.
Chivas USA have been wracked by turmoil all season, yet picked up two ties and a win this month, and on Sunday night, the Goats jumped out to a 1-0 lead at inhospitable CenturyLink Field. They couldn’t hold on, but according to goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, “we’re moving in the right direction. These games always come down to one or two plays and we were on the short end of that.”
Considering the dysfunction that has plagued the club this season, Kennedy’s outlook is close to miraculous. Yet Chivas have some new blood (Erick “El Cubo” Torres, US veteran Carlos Bocanegra) and very little to lose, which will make them a potential spoiler as well.
As for the last-place team in the East, D.C. United, well … OK, times are genuinely tough in the Beltway at the moment. But the storied club got some good news on the stadium front last week, and having reached the conference finals just a season ago, they know they can bounce back next year.
The competitive balance and financial constraints in MLS make it an ideal proving ground for young talent, and the youngsters are delivering on that point once again this season.
Week 22 featured huge contributions from Toronto’s 21-year-old Osorio, Colorado rookie Dillon Powers, who produced a goal and an assist in the Rapids’ 2-0 win over LA, and New England teenager Diego Fagundez, who delivered a goal, and a goal-line clearance, in the Revolution’s 2-1 win over DC.
WATCH: Dillon Powers scores vs. LA
In Seattle, 20-year-old Torres opened the scoring for Chivas USA, putting a scare into the Sounders faithful, while in Montreal, 22-year-old striker Smith nabbed the Impact’s late winner, and 22-year-old Antoine Hoppenot struck for Philadelphia in Vancouver.
The greatest appeal of parity for fans is, of course, the fact that the vast majority of the league’s teams still have solid playoff hopes heading into the final third of the season.
A short burst of form can do wonders for your prospects – just ask the Rapids, who vaulted from sixth to second place in the West following their 2-0 win over the Galaxy on Saturday.
So while some favorites for the 2013 title are starting to emerge, there’s still plenty of time for a twist ending. Whatever ground MLS still has to cover in terms of over all quality of play, it is, and has been for a while, the most competitive league in the world, top to bottom.