Not So Fast Lunchbucket Lunchpail Blue Collar Hard-working tough

>> Monday

MLS washout and SI.com's resident soccer blowhard Greg Lalas praises the virtues of the Columbus Crew, a perennial MLS doormat who at the 1/4 pole of the MLS season has the best record in the league.

He doesn't really attribute it to anything other than using an excessive amount of "blue-collar" adjectives to describe their play. I suppose it's easy given their Village People-esque badge. Greg is right on one thing Columbus certainly is the early-season success story of MLS. For years, a trip to Crew Stadium meant a pretty good chance of coming out with a result. (16-19-11 over the last three years at home)

In addition to improving in the standings, their supporters' section is growing. Things are looking up in Cowtown. Lalas attributes most of the positive change to a change in mentality (from a Coach who had been at the helm for two years already), to players who have been playing together for a while (but only two years), and of course to their Lunchpail, Hardhat, gung-ho attitude.

However, I am convinced it is something else entirely. While soccer admittedly does not have a stat-geek side like baseball or football, there is one thing staring everyone in the face over America's Hardest Working Team's 6-1-0 start that no one seems to be mentioning. Strength of schedule. MLS is admittedly a parity-driven league (DC's First-to-worst turnaround in the East this season is one example). However, a quick glance at Columbus's schedule so far reveals the following
Toronto FC (Win 2-0)
@ New York (Loss 0-2)
Chivas USA (Win 4-3)
@ DC United (Win 2-1)
Houston Dynamo (Win 1-0)
Kansas City (Win 2-1)
@ San Jose (Win 3-2)

Aside from noting that their only results away from Crew Stadium are a loss, and wins against the worst teams in the East and West, let's examine those seven sides' relative positions in the MLS table. Teams Columbus has played are in bold. Losses are in Red.

2008 MLS Single Table as of May 12
1.) Columbus (6-1-0, 18 pts)
2.) Chicago (5-1-1, 16 pts)
3.) New England (4-3-1, 13 pts)
4.) New York (3-1-2, 11 pts)
5.) Kansas City (3-3-1, 10 pts)
6.) Toronto FC (3-2-1, 10 pts)
7.) Colorado (3-4-0, 9 pts)
8.) FC Dallas (2-2-3, 9 pts)
9.) LA Galaxy (2-3-2, 8 pts)
10.) Salt Lake (2-2-2, 8 pts)
11.) Houston (1-2-3, 7 pts)
12.) DC United (2-5-0, 6 pts)
13.) Chivas USA (1-4-2, 5 pts)
14.) San Jose (1-4-1, 4 pts)

So on further examination, Columbus has not played a very rough schedule. Four of their six wins are against the four worst teams in the league. Another win came against Toronto in their first game of the year. This was before TFC acquired 2004 MLS MVP Amado Guevara, and French international Laurent Robert. These moves substantially altered the outlook of TFC's midfield and attack; turning them from a definite doormat to a potential playoff team. Since the signings, Toronto is undefeated in 4 games (3-0-1). In the end, Columbus is left with one noteworthy victory...over a .500 Kansas City team.

Combined with the Crew's loss to New York, Columbus has not yet beaten a single team that is over .500. They'll get a real test at BMO Field this weekend with their rematch against Toronto FC. TFC is unbeaten at home so far this year (2-0-1), and BMO is fastly becoming one of the loudest venues in North America.


4 comments:

Anonymous,  4:10 PM  

but what about the quasi-maybe after three beers-hotness of the Columbus Crew dancers? doesn't that play a role?

Matthew 8:00 AM  

Not to nit-pick but Columbus won on the road in SJ. I agree that the schedule has been, in retrospect, on the soft side. However, what will that say about Toronto when C'bus beats them at BMO? Is Columbus then for real? Or is Toronto just as bad as the rest of the Columbus schedule? Somehow I feel that Toronto is crap - not that Columbus is for real.

Mike 11:29 AM  

Sorry for the oversight, Matthew. Fixed as soon as I finish this.

While a win away to Toronto would certainly boost Columbus's credentials, and keep them atop the league, perhaps it's the Cubs fan in me, but I'm skeptical. While early-season results can be encouraging, they don't tell much in the long haul; especially in this league. I'm really not prepared to call teams "For real" untill at least mid-June. Even then, untill the end of August, there's transfer window-issues that can bite a predictor squarely in the ass, as TFC is doing to my pre-season picks right now with their recent acquisitions of Guevara and Robert.

As for Columbus's rise to the top of the league, at this point last season, it was the same story, just with Kansas City and Red Bull New York's ascents up the table. In the end, New York failed to score a single goal in the first round of the playoffs (As a distant #3 seed), and Kansas City was the only playoff team with a sub-.500 record. While KC did put together a decent run to get to the semifinals, they were thoroughly outclassed by eventual champions Houston.

TFC may well collapse. Guevara seems to wear out his welcome wherever he goes, and with World Cup Qualifiers fast-approaching, TFC will likely miss Jim Brennan, Maurice Edu, Amado Guevara, Kevin Harmse, and Greg Sutton with their respective national teams for at least some portion of the season. TFC floundered all last season, but it seemed especially pronounced when players were on Gold Cup duty.

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