How Chicago and Houston are engineering their worst-to-first turnarounds

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. set the Cinderella standard four years ago. Now the Fire and Dynamo are writing fairy tales of their own.

The United States’ sporting public loves a good worst-to-first story, and Major League Soccer has a couple of real dandies in the works.

The Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo have gotten their formerly bungling selves straightened out, and in a big hurry.

Still, neither story is likely to displace the league’s all-timer of reversals. That was D.C. United, which literally went worst to first in the East between 2013 and 2014.

More about Chicago and Houston in a moment – those turnabouts certainly deserve inspection and applause. And there is one way they could possibly make us forget about D.C. United’s stunning change of direction under Ben Olsen three years back. It won’t, however, be easy.

Olsen’s team in 2013 was historically awful. That woeful version won just three times over 34 matches, an all-time MLS worst. The team scored just 21 goals, matching the MLS all-time record (which D.C. United had set three years earlier.) The team had one moment of real joy, an implausible march to a U.S. Open Cup crown. It was small solace by the time its otherwise miserable campaign ended mercifully in late October before an RFK Stadium crowd of under 14,000. The team’s average attendance of 13,646 was lowest in the proud club’s history.

There were other all-time marks set for futility, but you get the idea. D.C. stunk up the place. So, clearly, only the truly clairvoyant could have seen what was coming next: a spring upward like none before.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

United’s comprehensive roster overhaul worked wonders; the team’s 43-point swing in 2014 was an all-time league best. D.C. went from a pitiful minus-37 goal difference to a darned presentable plus-15. It even rode out a successful Champions League group stage – eligible thanks to that unlikely Open Cup triumph – qualifying for the following year’s elimination round.

The only thing D.C. United missed: more playoff success. Mike Petke’s Red Bulls eliminated the Black and Red in the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals. That’s the small sliver that opens the door for perhaps Chicago or Houston to slip ahead in these ultimate worst-to-first debates.

As mid-season approaches, Houston is in first place in the West. Chicago is in second in the East, behind only Toronto, the most consistent team in MLS this year.

Whether Houston and Chicago can hold their positions through the season’s back half is anyone’s guess. But they do seem bound for the playoffs. As MLS has stabilized over the years, teams that enter the summer in playoff positions tend to become the playoff teams. There are exceptions, of course, but the data shows that to be increasingly true.

Even if Chicago and Houston may not technically finish worst-to-first, the ongoing turnabouts deserve inspection.

In Chicago, it’s more about general manager Nelson Rodriguez, who helped guide a textbook roster upgrade. Rodriguez and head coach Veljko Paunovic kept the best parts and supplemented them with additions who have all been smash hits. Veteran MLS midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho, plus surprise league scoring leader Nemanja Nikolic, all were in place for the season opener.

The cherry on top was German World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger, who found his MLS feet immediately upon an early April debut. Furthermore, he’s been a locker room leader and fabulous ambassador, helping restore some sheen and local relevance to an organization that had fumbled away too much of it.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Just 13 games into this season, Chicago has matched its seven wins from last year and is on pace to smash its 31-point total, with 24 already. In addition to last year’s finish on the bottom, Chicago also placed last in 2015 and next to last in the East in 2014.

Just like in Houston, the Fire’s success is mostly about winning at home. Down in Texas, the disparity between home and road form is even more pronounced.

Manager Wilmer Cabrera has remade a team better suited for today’s MLS, quick and creative on the wings thanks mostly to a pair of Honduran additions, Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis. The real find, however, has been Erick “Cubo” Torres’ previous scoring form.

Torres had zero goals in the two seasons under former manager Owen Coyle. The drastic dropoff from its expensive striker was among the many reasons Houston finished eighth (out of 10 teams) in Coyle’s first season at BBVA Compass Stadium, in 2015. The Dynamo regressed further in 2016, finishing last; Coyle was gone by mid-summer.

Torres goes into the weekend second in league scoring; his 10 goals trails only Nikolic’s 12 strikes.

The Dynamo’s disparity in home and road form is outrageous: Cabrera’s team is exciting and practically exotic at its downtown ground, with a 7-0-1 record and a whopping 27 goals scored. On the road? The team is 0-5-1 with just three goals.

Still, that kind of sustained home dominance, or something close to it, would get Houston into playoffs. And this part hasn’t changed about an increasingly stabilizing and predictable MLS: Playoff success is all about timing, about being “right” at the right time.

MLS continues to prove highly unpredictable. If Chicago and Houston can stay the course, they could stand alongside D.C. United’s all-timer in penniless-to-huge profit stories.

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Steve Davis’ column, America’s Game, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.