One of the more peculiar issues in covering professional sports rears its ugly head every time a team has a slow start to the season. Fans look at the league standings and there sits their team near the bottom of the list. Beat reporters looking for an angle for their next story press players and coaches on what is going wrong and what needs to change. Commentators begin asking questions as to whether it is too late to salvage the season or if we’re better off looking forward to next year.
After fives games this season, the San Jose Earthquakes have a record of 1-2-2 and a grand total of five points heading into this weekend’s clash with Chivas USA. If you only used media reports and internet discussion forums to gauge the status of the team, you’d think the Quakes were in disarray and heading toward a bottom of the table finish in 2011 and not a return visit to the MLS Cup playoffs. However, and despite all of the hullabaloo, there remains the fact that early season results do not necessarily dictate the team’s fate for the whole season.
In MLS, as in other sports that have a lengthy regular season schedule, there are many examples of teams that have stumbled out of the gate, but found their stride in plenty of time to finish successfully. While the games count the same in April as they do in October, a bad start to the season is no reason for panic. In fact, many teams credit their success in the postseason to late season momentum that often builds from mediocre early season results.
So take the San Jose Earthquakes of 2011, with all of five points from five games, and compare that record to some success stories from recent MLS history. Looking back at the past four seasons, nearly half of the MLS Cup finalists, Supporters’ Shield winners and regular season conference champions sat at, or below, five points at this stage of the season. Three of the outliers from this group — Colorado Rapids in 2010, Real Salt Lake in 2009 and New York Red Bulls in 2008 — started the season with more than five points, but slumped over the course of the entire year and barely qualified for the playoffs before earning postseason silverware. So where do the 2011 Quakes measure up with their MLS brethren in years past? Let’s look at some other pokey point procurers in recent MLS history.
Real Salt Lake 2010 — (1-3-1) and 4 points: After quickly falling behind the Los Angeles Galaxy in the race for the Western Conference lead and Supporters’ Shield, RSL rebounded nicely to finish just 3 points behind the Galaxy, at the same time earning a berth in the knockout stages of the 2010-2011 CONCACAF Champions League.
FC Dallas 2010 — (0-1-4) and 4 points: The Hoops, led by 2010 MVP David Ferreira, stormed back after a slow start and beat both the Galaxy and RSL in the postseason to reach the MLS Cup Final.
Columbus Crew 2009 — (0-2-3) and 3 points: The Crew actually earned just two more points in their next two games before flourishing over the summer to capture the Supporters’ Shield with 49 points.
Los Angeles Galaxy 2009 — (0-1-4) and 4 points: A start similar to that of the Crew in the same season didn’t stop the Galaxy from finishing just one point behind Columbus in the race for the Supporters’ Shield. Their late season momentum included a run to the MLS Cup Final and a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to RSL in Seattle.
Houston Dynamo 2009 — (1-2-2) and 5 points: The Dynamo suffered their third straight slow start to a season before rallying to tie the Galaxy for the regular season Western Conference lead.
Houston Dynamo 2008 — (0-2-3) and 3 points: Dominic Kinnear’s boys in orange failed to post a victory in their first 6 games of the season, but recovered nicely in the Texas summer heat to finish on 51 points as Western Conference leaders.
DC United 2007 — (1-3-1) and 4 points: Overcoming a slow start to the season didn’t stop MLS’s most decorated club from finishing with a league-high 55 points and adding another Supporters Shield to their trophy case.
Chivas USA 2007 — (2-3-0) and 6 points: Perhaps a point better than the 2011 Earthquakes, Chivas USA righted the ship quickly after their slow start to finish with 53 points and the regular season Western Conference championship.
Houston 2007 — (2-2-1) and 7 points: The 2007 season started brightly for the defending MLS Cup Champions, but they slumped to a 2-5-1 record over their next three games before recovering to defend their title with a second straight championship.
In short, the list of teams with results similar to the 2011 Quakes after five games is impressive, and supporters should take solace in knowing that there are 29 games remaining this season. Also, this year 10 of 18 make the playoffs — even better odds than in the last two seasons — so a slow start does not necessarily spell doom for a team’s goal of finishing in playoff position, or even to be in contention for the Supporters Shield.
Robert Jonas is a writer for CenterLineSoccer.com and SJEarthquakes.com. Send him feedback on Twitter: @RobertJonas