This weekend represents a dividing line in the Major League Soccer season, a bookmark roughly a third of the way in. This is the last round of games before teams are required by FIFA to release their national team call-ups ahead of next month’s World Cup. Some teams, such as Seattle, have already let their guys go.
World Cup years always helpfully divide the schedule into thirds: the slow build of spring, the awkward lull before, during and after the World Cup, and the playoff push that accompanies the dog days of late summer and the turn to autumn.
What have we learned from Act I? Below are the themes that have jumped out in the first few months of this MLS campaign.
Atlanta United is insatiable
Most successful previous expansion teams reached a leveling-off point, a plateau on which they rested, satisfied. Certainly, Atlanta had plenty of reasons to rest on laurels after Year 1, from breaking Seattle’s long-held attendance records to finishing comfortably in the playoff places.
Yet the Five Stripes have only gotten more ambitious. United traded with Portland for talented midfielder Darlington Nagbe. It reportedly dropped a league-record $15 million on the transfer fee for teenage playmaker Ezequiel Barco. It has continued to cultivate a unique game-day experience in MLS, a mash-up of top-level European football and SEC football.
Perhaps most importantly, it has kept winning, taking the lead in the Supporters’ Shield race while scoring buckets of goals.
The balance of power has shifted even further east
It was only a few seasons ago that the Western Conference held sway over MLS. From 2008 until last season, not a single team that currently calls the East home lifted MLS Cup. That dynamic has changed — and drastically.
With the exception of Sporting Kansas City — which has started quickly and faded late annually for years now — and expansion LAFC, you could make a case that the top six legitimate contenders are all in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta, both the New York Red Bulls and NYCFC, and Columbus Crew would all be heavy favorites on the other side of the bracket, and Orlando City would like its chances, too. Toronto has struggled in league play so far, but would you really bet against the defending champ in a playoff series?
The imbalance and the sense of urgency it imbues were articulated by Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch in the dismissive way he described his team’s recent road win in Colorado: “If you slip up in Colorado, there’s a good chance that six other teams are going to beat Colorado, whether at home or on the road.”
The Rapids played in the Western Conference final just a year and a half ago.
The Western Conference is … not good
This sort of bleeds into the section above, but it’s worth reiterating.
Colorado, as mentioned, is terrible, and the San Jose Earthquakes aren’t much better. Two-time defending conference champion Seattle has scored seven goals in nine games. Real Salt Lake just had its best player Albert Rusnak publicly call out management over a contract dispute. The LA Galaxy and Vancouver Whitecaps both feel on the verge of implosion, and Minnesota United certainly doesn’t look like a playoff team.
At least one of those clubs has to make the postseason by default.
The top contenders are no longer reliant on a single difference-maker
Atlanta planned for this. It knew that by building around up-and-coming stars such as Barco, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, larger clubs from bigger leagues were eventually going to come nosing around. Almiron, especially, has been the subject of transfer rumors almost from the moment he arrived.
Yet whereas most MLS teams have traditionally held tight to what they have, United has been open about embracing the open market. Almiron is likely to be sold this winter and maybe even sooner, but no one around the club seems to be having a crisis of conscious. You get the sense that its grand project is going to continue unabated regardless.
One could sense a similar dynamic in New York these past few weeks, where NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira was linked first to the Arsenal job, then to Nice, but nobody seemed to panic.
This is the next stage in the league’s evolution, MLS 3.0: Identities and systems matter more than any one player or figurehead, and teams are more secure in their places in the global hierarchy.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.