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Wiebe: What the MLS Playoffs final 4 says about the present and future of the league

These are your gods, O MLS 3.0, who brought you up out the land of Dom Kinnear’s Dynamo and the Beckham Rule.

Seattle Sounders. Toronto FC. Atlanta United. LAFC.

No false idols remain in these Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. They are the chosen ones. The three previous MLS Cup winners. Five of the six Cup finalists. Clubs that tied or set points records in each of the past three seasons. Clubs that signed eight of the 10 most expensive players in MLS history. Clubs that took 10 of the last 16 major trophies available in the US and Canada.

They are the best MLS has to offer, on the field and off it, in almost every case. And we ought not be surprised this particular final four find themselves on the brink of capturing the Phillip F. Anschutz Trophy.

Talent wins. And investing in talent is what defines MLS 3.0. Talent on the field (DPs, TAM, domestic signings, standalone USL teams, robust academies). Talent on the technical side (head coach, GM/sporting director, scouting, sports science, medical). Talent in the front office to bring it all together (literally everyone, owner to intern).

It’s giving Garth Lagerwey the keys to turn your very successful team into a top-to-bottom club. It’s “A Bloody Big Deal,” Jozy in his prime, Sebastian Giovinco and, when the time came to move on, Best XI debutant Alejandro Pozuelo. It’s rewriting the expansion book with Tata Martino, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez. It’s hiring Bob Bradley to create a culture from scratch, then giving him Carlos Vela.

It’s signing Boca Juniors star and Uruguay international Nico Lodeiro when he’s 27 years old, then poaching Raul Ruidiaz from Liga MX when you need a goalscorer. It’s beating Mexico’s best and coming within a penalty kick of winning the Concacaf Champions League. It’s setting transfer records, bagging your first Cup and replacing Martino with Frank de Boer. It’s buying a teenager for eight figures when you’re already running away with the Shield.

On Monday’s Extratime driven by Continental, we wondered what LAFC, Sounders, ATLUTD and TFC in the conference finals means for parity and competitive balance. Perhaps nothing, just Year 1 of the one-and-done playoff format almost entirely chalk. Perhaps everything, a sign that getting to the MLS summit requires more now than ever before.

From where I’m sitting, it feels like if it doesn’t mean everything, well then, it’s awfully close.

MLS 3.0 simply requires more from clubs than excellence in just a few areas. Ambition and talent will win, and what those words mean in MLS changes by the transfer window. Without talent in every single facet of the club, without a desire to break the paradigm, without investment in systems that recognize and nurture people, you’re inevitably behind. You’re not in position to win MLS Cup. You’re reading this on vacation.

Because, in a salary cap league, it’s not just transfer fees and DPs, though those seem to matter a whole lot, too. It’s academy scouting and a path to the pros. It’s the USL pipeline. It’s scouting and maximizing TAM impact. It’s picking up and polishing parts off the MLS scrap heap. In short, it’s everything.

It’s Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris growing into Best XI-caliber players. It’s Jonathan Osorio, Marky Delgado and Tsubasa Endoh in your starting XI. It’s Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing making up two-thirds of the league’s best midfield. It’s Miles Robinson and Julian Gressel taken in the same SuperDraft.

It’s Stefan Frei’s game-saving extra-time performance against FC Dallas. It’s Michael Bradley’s experience and Greg Vanney’s tactical wrinkles. It’s Jeff Larentowicz still doing the damn thing at 36 and Brad Guzan making game-changing saves feel routine. It’s a backline of Jordan Harvey, Steven Beitashour, Tristan Blackmon and Eddie Segura stopping Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

And it’s showing up in the big moments, too.

Lodeiro shutting the door on Real Salt Lake. Winning twice without your talismanic No. 9, and punctuating it with a Panenka. Josef Martinez threatening anyone who messes with his money or Atlanta’s Cup defense, then trying to tear the roof of the net off with his left foot. The Carlos Vela show followed by two raging-bull goals off the bench from Adama Diomande.

At the risk of oversimplification, these four teams are here because of talent, beget by ambition, and talent will ultimately decide who bathes in confetti on Nov. 10. Whose stars will show up? Whose unsung heroes will fill a hole or contribute a highlight moment? Which coach has the best game plan?

Seattle Sounders. Toronto FC. Atlanta United. LAFC.

These are your gods, O MLS 3.0. Four will be two, and one will lift the Cup. For everyone else, time to catch up.

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