What’s the biggest difference between playoff teams and non-playoff teams?
It’s not star power or wages; it’s defending. The bottom six teams in the West and the five teams in the East that missed the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs were the 11 worst defenses, going by the amount of goals they conceded. You could have sorted the standings by goals conceded and found the playoff teams.
If you go back the last three seasons, and guessed the playoffs by sorting goals conceded, you would have correctly predicted 31 of the 36 slots (and three of the five misses were because the San Jose Earthquakes limped into the six seed in the West in 2017).
Now go through the 11 teams that didn’t make the playoffs in 2018. Think about their starting defenders. Find two better defenders than Kendall Waston and Greg Garza, both of whom were acquired in trades by FC Cincinnati on Wednesday for a total of $1.2 million in allocation money and an international roster spot.
Maybe Toronto FC have a couple superior defenders. Other than that ... anyone?
Atlanta United have done a wonderful thing over the last two years, raising the bar for other MLS clubs to meet. But they’ve also skewed the focus, toward spending and stars. When we think about a team’s chances of success, we tie it to spending and stars – and those things matter, for sure. But those aren’t actually the two variables tied to winning. They help achieve the variables, but they aren’t the variables themselves.
One of the biggest variables in MLS: Can you defend well enough to give yourself a chance?
If you were to combine the Atlanta front five with the LA Galaxy back five, do Atlanta win the title? The first thing any team in MLS needs to do to have a chance is to create a functioning back five (generally four defenders and a defensive midfielder).
Many might be expecting FC Cincy to struggle in 2019 given the recent report by Sam Stejskal that the club will enter the 2019 season with just one Designated Player, Fanendo Adi. They will also start the offseason with nine career USL players on their roster and they made multiple risky picks in the Expansion Draft, particularly Darren Mattocks. And most importantly, they don’t have a proven MLS-level chance creator, perhaps another of MLS’s most important variables.
But they are most of the way toward having one key component of MLS success: a top-10 backline. And while every decision matters, I also think you can isolate success to a key few variables, after which everything else becomes noise. The simple question of “can this team defend?” goes a long way.
If sporting director Luke Sassano and his staff can find a solid defensive mid – and they probably still have boatloads of allocation money left – then FCC fans should feel really good about their back five. And recent history shows that a playoff-level defense generally gets you into the playoffs.
Are they ready to challenge for MLS Cup? Not until they have another elite attacker. But they are creeping toward playoff contention.