The hardest thing to do in pro sports? Building a dynasty. Even harder than that? Rebuilding.
There’s nothing more daunting facing a GM and head coach than realizing your team’s time at the summit has come to an end, and the next challenge is starting over. In Major League Soccer, successful rebuilds have rarely happened.
On this week’s March to the Match podcast, we answered a concerned e-mail from a fan who called himself simply “Frustrated in Columbus.” Said fan wondered what had happened to his team, less than three seasons removed from back-to-back Supporters’ Shields and now tumbling close to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
The Crew are not without their own issues – injuries have destroyed them over the past 12 months or so, and a number of acquisitions haven’t worked out. But as Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle pointed out, this was a team that was still in first place in the Eastern Conference as recently as last summer.
But it’s been a long journey for Robert Warzycha & Co., who are trying to somehow return this team to the lofty levels of a few years ago, when Columbus also had an MLS Cup title and two straight CONCACAF Champions League appearances to go along with those pair of Shields. At this point, fans are wondering if they’ll even make the playoffs in 2012.
And that might not be fair. Sigi Schmid’s Crew of a few years ago were a carefully constructed machine that functioned beautifully. This was a team that moved the ball efficiently, got out of jams expertly and had that little bit of magic in the final third, thanks, of course, to the once-in-a-generation talent of Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
When it came to an end, as dynasties do, Schmid’s ethos left with him and the keys were entrusted to Warzycha. Good things do not last. And the men who refuse to change things and expect the same results are fools.
Only five of the players from that 2009 Shield winner remain as Warzycha tries to make the team in his own image and return the Crew to where they were not too long ago.
Is it too soon to expect results? D.C. United went through similar growing pains only four years ago after winning a second straight Supporters’ Shield in 2007 – the last piece of hardware from the Peter Nowak Era in Washington. (Tom Soehn inherited what was essentially Nowak’s old team that year).
Since then, United have failed to even return to the MLS Cup Playoffs, including a dismal 2010 season in which they finished dead last in the league table. Only now are D.C. beginning to show signs of a recovery, with a nice nucleus upon which Ben Olsen can build not just for this season, but the next several years.
And when you think about it, D.C. are one of the only clubs ever to successfully rebuild a dynasty. After winning three of the first four MLS Cups, United took a nosedive following the departures of core players like Roy Lassiter and Raul Diaz Arce as the rest of the roster began to age. It took another five seasons before Nowak was able to put pieces together to turn D.C. into a MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield champion again.
The LA Galaxy might be the other, currently in their second golden age after the long drought since their excellent Schmid-led side of the turn of the millennium. (That is, if you consider their surprise MLS Cup and US Open Cup double in 2005 an outlier.)
Take a look around the league, and you realize there isn’t much precedence for repeat success outside D.C. and LA. The Chicago Fire have yet to approach their lofty heights of the past. Jay Heaps has to live up to the expectations set by Steve Nicol. Frank Yallop is still trying to rekindle the glory days of the Earthquakes. His successor, Dominic Kinnear is similarly looking to rebuild the Houston Dynamo.
It’s not easy. And that’s something Warzycha has to face every day: history, expectations and the still-large shadow of his wildly successful predecessor.
Still, when healthy, Columbus have shown signs of progress and have some good pieces that could amount to a contender. If they even flirt with full health later this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them push up the table quickly.
All that shiny silverware in the trophy case is a nice reminder of the incentives of getting it right. Adding more may taste even sweeter the next time around – if you can stand the wait.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.