SAN FRANCISCO -- "You can't win a title in March, but you sure can lose one."
I hate starting with a cliche, but this one works. All you have to do is look at where Sporting KC and Toronto FC currently reside in the standings. The team that set a league record for excellence by going 7-0-0 out of the gate are second in the Supporters' Shield hunt, while the side that set a league record for futility by going 0-9-0 have never, for an instant, been in the playoff chase despite having a summer that could be honestly described as "pretty decent."
|The Stretch Run||Power 5|
|Key players in the West||Quakes' Shield run|
|Key players in the East||Galaxy's DP trio|
|9 guys to make it a race||Houston's tactical shift|
|2011's dramatic stretch run||Seattle's backup plan|
|Montreal's new defense|
What happens over any seven- or nine- or whatever-game stretch matters, of course. The New York Red Bulls are a relatively uninspiring 5-4-4 over their last 13, for example, but are still third in the table because of that five-game winning streak back in April and May.
Bet you don't remember that as well as you do Sporting's sprint -- or Toronto's stumble -- out of the blocks. And that's been the point of this weeklong series on The Stretch Run: we tend to remember the teams and players that either start hot or finish hot. So as we crest the 75 percent mark of the season this weekend, let's take a look back at some historically memorable stretch runs, compiled by the inimitable Rick Lawes of MLS Communications:
GREAT CUP RUNS
- 1996, D.C. United. End season with a 6-2 record, then go 5-0 in MLS Cup Playoffs
- 1998, Chicago Fire. Following an 11-game winning streak, they lose 5 in a row. But they then go on a 7-2 run to end the season, then go 5-0 in the MLS Cup Playoffs
- 1999, D.C. United. Go on 11-game winning streak before losing final two in regular season, then go 5-1 in MLS Cup Playoffs
- 2002, New England Revolution. Go 5-0-1 down stretch to finish first in East (making playoffs by 3 points), then go 2-1-3 in playoffs to reach (and host) Cup final, but lose
- 2008, Columbus Crew. Go 9-2-2 over final 13 games to secure Shield, then 3-0-1 in Playoffs to win Cup
GREAT SHIELD RUNS
- 2004, Columbus Crew. End season with 18-game unbeaten streak
- 2005, San Jose Earthquakes. End season on a 15-1-4 run after starting 3-3-6.
- 2007, D.C. United. Go 9-4-1 over final 14 games (13 games unbeaten, lose season finale after having already clinched the Shield)
GREAT PLAYOFF-CLINCHING RUNS
- 1996, Columbus Crew. Through July 31, 6-16, then 9-1 to finish fourth in East (tied with Tampa Bay at 15-17)
- 1997, LA Galaxy. Through Sept. 4, 10-16, then 6-0 to finish second in West
- 1999, Dallas Burn. Through Aug. 14, 11-12, then 8-1 to finish second in West
- 2005, Colorado Rapids. Through July 20, 5-11-3, then 8-2-3 to finish with 45 points and in three-way tie for last two playoff spots
- 2010, Seattle Sounders FC. Through July 11, 4-8-4, then 10-2-2 to finish fourth in West and gain final playoff spot by 2 points
- 1997, MetroStars. In final 10: Win 5 of 6 (1 by SO), but then lose 3 of last 4, to miss out on playoffs by 2 points
- 1998, Tampa Bay Mutiny. Win 5 of last 6 games (1 by SO), but miss out on playoffs by 1 point
- 2003, Columbus Crew. Go 5-3-2 over final 10 (with 2 losses in OT), but miss out on playoffs by 1 point
- 2006, Real Salt Lake. Go 6-3-4 over final 13, but lose out on tiebreaker for final playoff spot (3-way tie)
- 2011, Chicago Fire. Go 7-2-3 over final 12, but miss out on playoffs by 3 points
GREAT GOALSCORING RUNS
- 1996, Roy Lassiter. Ends season with six-game goalscoring streak (Tampa Bay win all six on their way to a Supporters' Shield that would be awarded retroactively), then scores in his first four playoff games (10 consecutive games with a goal, which would be the all-time record if not separate competitions)
- 2001, Alex Pineda Chacon. Scores nine goals over final five games of regular season, then in playoff opener.
- 2002, Carlos Ruiz. Scores last seven goals for the Galaxy in the regular season (over last four games), then scores eight of 15 total goals Galaxy score in Playoffs (including MLS Cup winner in OT)
- 2005, Herculez Gomez. Scores seven goals in last seven games
- 2009, Jeff Cunningham. At halfway point of season, has one goal. Scores 16 goals over final 15 games to win Golden Boot.
- 2010, Chris Wondolowski. Scores the final 10 goals the Quakes score in the season (over the last 8 games)
There's a lot of glory to be found there. This year's Fire were an easy team to pick as "contenders" since they finished last year so strong and brough back so many of the pieces from that run. Neutrals (and San Jose fans, obviously) can also keep their fingers crossed that Wondo still has a shot at Lassiter's all-time goalscoring mark since his own personal trend over the last two seasons is to lock in down the stretch.
Two defenders also deserve special mention, even though their stats don't really tell the story. The great Lubos Kubik was the man for the 1998 Chicago Fire side that won the MLS Cup/US Open Cup double and finished third in the overall standings. That Chicago team are still probably the best counterattacking side in MLS history, and an obscene number of those started from the foot of the Czech sweeper over the last couple months of the season.
The other is Chris Albright, currently of the Philadelphia Union but at one point a stalwart on the LA Galaxy backline. Albright, once he was shifted from forward to right back, was always a talented (and perpetually underrated) defender, but for a couple of months in 2005 he turned into the American Cafu, overlapping at every opportunity and opening tons of space for Gomez and Landon Donovan as LA went on to win a Cup/Cup double of their own.
One team also deserve a special mention for futility. As Albright was helping drive the Galaxy down the stretch in 2005, the then-Wizards were one of the league's best through the middle of August, sitting near the top of the East at 11-5-8. Not great, but not remotely in danger of missing the playoffs, right?
Wrong. Their last win came on August 19, 3-0 over Chicago, and then they proceeded to put up an 0-4-4 record down the season's final eight games. A win in any of them -- literally one win out of eight -- would have put them into the playoffs. Instead they finished tied on 45 points and had to watch from home.
Will we have similar dramatics this season? Montreal and FC Dallas, to name two, seem determined to give them to us. The Impact have won five of six, climbing within four points of the final playoff spot in the East, while FCD have won four of six and will finally, mercifully have close to a first-choice XI available.
And it should so happen that this weekend Montreal play D.C. United (Saturday, 4 pm ET; TSN 2/RDS in Canada, MLS Live in the US) and Dallas heads to LA (Sunday, 7 pm ET; NBC SN, Live Chat on MLSsoccer.com), the teams just ahead of them in the playoff hunt. Expect fireworks.
Of course, nothing's decided just yet even if both teams win. But you may want to get comfortable on the edge of your seats for a bit.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.