The top MLS teams in 2012 will be the ones that do the best job of balancing defense and converting their chances on offense.
How's that for a bold prediction and 'Well, Duh." statement? On one level it could be applied to any league during any season. It is the reason that the NFL keeps statistics on things like turn over rates and converting within the Red Zone. But this year's MLS season is liable to put a unique spin on the concept that warrants investigation.
Every MLS roster is a compromise. The salary cap structure and roster rules insure that every team has to make choices about where to bet on quality and where to bet on being adequate. Some teams have historically bet on putting all of their eggs into their Starting 11 and sacrificed quality depth. Some teams focused on a particular tactical approach and sacrificed flexibility. Other teams focused on offense at the expense of defense and vice versa. In any given year, rosters around the league represented a plethora of different compromises and half the fun of the league was watching how the various compromises stacked up against each other.
2012 is shaping up to be an anomaly. Few teams appear to have emphasized defense and those teams don't appear to be very strong at the outset of the season. Meanwhile a number of clubs appear to have sacrificed defensive prowess for offensive fire power. Sporting KC, LA, Portland, Vancouver and Toronto have all rolled the dice in favor of their offenses. Granted, the injury to Omar Gonzalez forced LA's hand, but their team for most of this season will live and die with their offense. Seattle, Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas are a bit more balanced, but Seattle could easily be described as a hybrid between balance and offense. Of the top teams in the league, only Houston appears in the early going to be based on a more defensive mentality. The question with Houston is how will they stack up against the league's more offensively structured teams. Neither of their wins came against any of the scoring oriented teams. This Friday's contest against Seattle will be a benchmark game for how they will fare.
Which brings us to the premise of this column. Converting opportunities and defense are going to carry a premium in 2012.
The LA Galaxy 2012 campaign demonstrates the issues involved. The Galaxy are four games into their year. So far they scored seven goals. Seven goals in four games is a very respectable offensive output for a soccer team. But they have also surrendered eight. Their overall record is 1 win, 1 tie and 2 losses. Their defense is porous. They have already given up roughly one third of the goals they conceded in 2011 league play. They also have left chances hanging on the vine. Shots have rung off the cross bar, gone wide, been whiffed and been saved with highlight reel defensive efforts and goal keeping. They have looked dangerous in every game. They could just as easily be 4-0-0. That record doesn't require a stretch of the imagination even with their defensive holes. They are still considered one of the most dangerous teams in the league. But at the end of their games the balance sheet between the chances converted and the goals surrendered has left them wanting.
Many of LA's games have been described with the phrase, "If only..." Remember that phrase. It will be a common refrain this year. After Saturday's game against Seattle, Ryan Johnson lamented what might have been, if only his shot in the first half had gone in instead of hitting the crossbar. The Sounders faithful wonder what might have happened in Torreon if only either of the early shots Seattle took had found the netting or if only they had scored on the play immediately prior to Santos Laguna's third goal. I imagine that MLS fans are going to drown in a sea of "If only..." by the end of this season.
In a league where all of the top teams feature offense, the teams that squander fewer opportunities and hold it together on defense best are going to rise to the top. RSL isn't being considered the best team currently because they are without weaknesses. They are being given the nod because they appear to stack up best against the strength of the league and have proven it against two teams that can generate fire power on any given night. They have the potential to score and play defense. They are the team most likely to finish a game with a soccer score rather than a baseball score.
Which brings us to the Sounders. In 2011 they scored more goals than any other team in the league. But offense is not going to be enough in 2012. Sometimes they are going to need to win the slug fests. They will need to convert when they create chances. My favorite part of David Estrada's stellar performance last weekend was the fact that he finished many of his opportunities. 2012 is going to put a premium on finishing and the team appears to have a finisher. The other side of the coin is going to be how can the Sounders defense hold up under blistering fire? How well will the Sounders Left FB by committee system work in 2012? If that question makes you quiver, you are not alone. As Wash said in the movie Serenity, "Hang on. This could get interesting." You might want to look up how he defined interesting.
If you relish quality defensive soccer, look away now. The 2012 MLS season is not likely to win any defensive prowess awards. The league's goal keepers are liable to be shell shocked by the end of the season. But all of that offense should be nothing if not entertaining. Hang on to your knickers Mr. Toad, we're in for a wild ride.