Why leading in May doesn't mean much for MLS Cup hopes (talk to us on June 1)
It's silly to predict MLS Cup champions before the summer swelter has set in, and that might be a tad early, too.
The late transfer window so often provides prizes that make a huge difference -- Nicolas Lodeiro, anyone? -- and the team parading the trophy at the finish so often is the side that got hot when autumn arrived. Think Portland two years ago. Or Seattle with Lodeiro.
Since MLS in 2013 began starting the season in early March, not one May 1 front-runner has won the Cup. Four of the last five champions have been sixth or worse when May arrived.
This year's fight should be a good one. FC Dallas, Portland, Sporting Kansas City, Orlando City and Toronto FC already look like real contenders, and we've got an eye on Seattle and New York City, too. But let's be real. None of them are going to win MLS Cup at the end of the year. It's just not going to happen.
Why? Because this is Minnesota United's year.
Yes, the unfancied expansionists who until a few weeks ago were giving up five or six goals a game will prevail when it most matters, joining D.C. United and the Chicago Fire as the only first-year sides to capture Major League Soccer's championship. We come to this conclusion after many an hour poring over intricate data, applying advanced mathematics far too complicated to actually explain, and whipping up some convoluted scientific theory that we can't begin to understand. No, really.
Here's what's up: The Loons, 2-5-2, sit ninth in the Western Conference as May begins. In 2015, the Timbers were ninth in the West on May 1 and won MLS Cup. Guess who it was last year? Yep: the Sounders.
Since MLS in 2013 began starting the season in early March, not one May 1 front-runner has won the Cup, although two -- Seattle in 2014 and Dallas last year -- have captured the Shield. Four of the last five champions have been sixth or worse when May arrived, and another month of play didn't change a thing. That's really not so surprising. MLS' playoffs have only a tangential relationship to the preceding months. It really is about who's hot when, these days, they get to November.
Ninth place in May is a better indicator -- at least in the last 15 years -- than, say, who won the Supporters' Shield. Only Columbus in 2008 and the Galaxy in 2002 have pulled off the Shield/Cup double in the last 15 years.
OK, where teams sit as May begins has little to say about where they'll finish -- we get that -- and parsing history mostly confirms it, especially as MLS has grown in the past decade into a 22-team competition that's usually incredibly tight, thanks to roster rules designed to ensure parity.
May 1 standings
- Orlando (18 pts)
- NY Red Bulls (16)
- NYCFC (13)
- Portland (17 pts)
- Sporting KC (15)
- FC Dallas (15)
The point is, fast starts don't typically mean much, and they haven't for some time. The Galaxy went wire-to-wire in the West in the inaugural season but couldn't hold onto a two-goal lead in the MLS Cup's last 20 minutes. There was Kansas City in 2000, San Jose in 2003, Columbus in 2008 and the Galaxy in 2011.
Yet more is revealed, historically, in the first two months of a season than we might realize. Yes, most teams are still in preseason mode when First Kick comes around, and connections, chemistry and tactical adjustments can take time to develop. But the points are real, and the standings on May 1 -- and more so on June 1 -- often inform what's coming in October.
That was almost a rule way back when. Eight of the 14 conference or division winners in the first six years were on top by May 1. Eleven were in first place by June 1. That's not to suggest that there wasn't some leapfrogging going on through the season -- there usually was -- but June 1 leaders have won 21 of 44 conference titles.
It’s happening less, just six times since 2006 and not at all the past two years, but odds are that one among the top three teams in each conference on June 1 will finish first. That has been the case all but five times in MLS history.
Want to know who won't make the playoffs? Wait for June 1. Sixty percent of stragglers have been below the line when June arrived -- 67 of 111 -- and it's nearly two-thirds, 23 of 34, since 2013. And most of those teams weren't faring much better a month earlier. You can count on one hand the teams that were well off the pace at the end of the May and made the playoffs, and nobody's done so since the Colorado Rapids got through in 2005 after a 2-7-2 start. It just doesn't happen.
So, if history repeats, a gander at the current standings ought to provide a semblance of what we'll see come October, and it should come more deeply into focus after another month. The one thing that definitely won't be revealed is the MLS Cup winner, but we've got that covered.
Ninth place in the West right now. Bank on it. Minnesota will celebrate in December.
Unless we got that wrong. Perhaps it's not ninth place. There were only 10 teams in each conference the last two years, and now, of course, there are 11. Might it be that whoever is one spot above the basement -- so, 10th place? -- on May 1 ends up winning it all?
Well, then, let me tell you about what awaits the Galaxy ...
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.