Early season injuries within the MLS rosters create unique challenges when handicapping the relative caliber of the individual teams. Injuries do not exist in a vacuum. Home field advantage, strength of opposition, number of games played, interleague competitions and the overall development arc of teams also play significant roles. But injuries and their unique impact on the strength of MLS franchises deserves scrutiny.
Part of a Bigger Problem: Injuries and MLS
Professional athletes get injured. This is a fact of sports. But the MLS roster rules include injury management as a component of roster building strategy and heavily weighted consequences. The MLS roster rules place an intense premium on teams remaining healthy. A nine month, 34 game season with the travel component of MLS tests every team's fitness. But additional pressure is applied because of the tight salary cap and very restrictive injured reserve rules within the league.
The salary cap forces each team to make compromises within their depth both in terms of numbers and quality of replacement players. Some teams opt to spend the lion's share of their budget on their Starting 11 and limit the quality of their remaining reserves. This creates a very powerful but shallow team. If anyone goes down, the team is left with very limited resources to shore up the gap. Other teams opt for more balance. They spread the talent base more evenly across their rosters. This makes them more resilient but not necessarily as skilled as the team that invests in a few high caliber players. But even these teams experience significant quality variation within their rosters. There simply isn't enough money within the budget or slots on the roster to overcome all contingencies.
The Injured Reserve rules further compound the problem. Placing a player on the injured reserve in MLS frees up a roster spot but not any cap space. If a team loses a 3 million dollar a year DP, they may only be able to replace that player with a player making $45 K depending on the team's position relative to the cap. This generally represents a quantum step off in quality. Furthermore, teams can only buy out the contract of a single player per year. This can make it very difficult for a team to overcome the impact of devastating injuries that take longer than a year to heal.
This combination of rules means that the quality of an MLS team usually degrades immediately when faced with injuries. This degradation can last for more than a season. Toronto FC, LA Galaxy, FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders all have key long term injuries that impact their current competitiveness by varying degrees. By contrast, Sporting Kansas City is currently healthy. The overall season-long performance of each team and their relative strength will dynamically change as the injury status of each team evolves.
Not All Injuries Have the Same Impact
Catastrophic injuries change the league's dynamic for entire seasons. The MLS prides itself on parity. No other factor shatters the league's equilibrium as quickly or thoroughly as injuries to its star players. The Galaxy are not the same team without Omar Gonzalez. Toronto struggles without Torsten Frings. The loss of Steve Zakuani, Conor Casey, David Ferreira and Javier Morales changed the landscape of the 2011 MLS standings. While I expect both LA and Toronto to compensate for their injured personnel, I doubt that either team will challenge for the Supporter's Shield. Severe injuries create too much havoc.
The consequences of routine short term injuries are both easier and trickier to assess. On one hand, you can reasonably assume that the wear and tear of a professional soccer season will effect all teams equally over the course of the season. Their impact will even out in the long view. The problem right now is that the current results include the injuries to some teams but not others. Seattle has been bitten hard in the early stages of the season. At one point they lost over a third of their roster to niggling problems and catastrophic injuries. KC on the other hand is currently healthy and their team functions as it was designed. Comparing the relative strength of the two teams at this point of the season beyond their records is difficult. If KC remains freakishly healthy and Seattle deals with lingering injuries all season, then the current results are indicative of the teams' relative strengths. But more likely Seattle's performance is just a fraction of its actual strength while KC's relative strength has been artificially inflated due to health. Only time will tell. But I certainly wouldn't bet against Seattle and I would auger caution in evaluating KC.
Another issue that revolves around minor injuries is that they can cascade into a running problem that saps a player's effectiveness for an entire season if they don't take the time to heal. As the player adjusts their gait or balance to compensate for the problem, they create new problems in other parts of their bodies. Before they know what's happening they've lost a critical facility that gives them a competitive edge within the league. Suddenly the player is having an off year and not just a couple of off weeks. This is insidious within the constraints of the MLS. Teams utilize players with solid but compromised skill sets as a tactic of managing the salary cap. If one of these players develops a nagging injury, they may still be playing but the subtle drop off in their skills makes all of the difference. The limited rosters also apply pressure to get key players back into the fold as quickly as possible. Yet, if a team rushes, then the problem is aggravated. The players worry about their positions in the lineup. Fans start screaming that the sky is falling in the absence of a key player. All you have to do is look at the fan blogs for the Sounders to see this principle in action. The team is proceeding cautiously with Mauro Rosales and Adam Johansson and parts of the fan base are distraught about the team's performance in their absence.
Tournament Driven Results
The problem of analyzing the relative caliber of MLS teams also suffers from the American cultural bias of valuing tournament play over season long consistency. In many global soccer leagues, the biggest prize within the league is its season long championship. Many leagues don't even have a season ending league tournament. But in the US, the culture puts a premium on the value of the MLS Cup over the Supporter's Shield. This means that teams only need to do well enough to make it into the playoff structure and then peak within the playoffs. This adds a greater element of chance and discounts the value of early season performance. If LA can resolve the problems surrounding the loss of Omar Gonzalez by the end of the season, their offense could be devastating in the playoffs. This emphasis on tournament play also means that timing is everything concerning minor injuries. The 2011 Sounders overcame the loss of both Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White but the unfortunate late season knee injury to Mauro Rosales had a dramatic impact on theIr tournament run.
The upshot of all of this is that early season performance probably doesn't offer much of an indication of how good a team is liable to be over the course of the season as long as the team hasn't had a catastrophic injury to one of its key players.