By beating Chivas USA on Wednesday, the San Jose Earthquakes passed a significant threshold. The three points they earned gave them 46 for the season and guaranteed them a Points Per Match of no worse than 1.53. Combined with the Colorado Rapids already having 45 points, this guarantees that all eight playoff teams will have PPM's of no worse than 1.5.
This is the first time in league history that all eight playoff teams will have claimed at least 50 percent of their available points. The only other time that even came close to happening was in 2005 when the No. 8 team claimed 45 points, but needed 32 matches to do it.
As recently as last year, the No. 8 team has made the playoffs with a fewer wins than losses. Throughout the league's history, it has been common for teams to make the playoffs with PPM's of 1.20 or worse. In 2005, the MLS Cup was even won by a Los Angeles Galaxy team that had a negative regular-season goal-differential. Right now, no playoff teams has a goal-differential of less than +4.
On some level, this is a natural product of MLS expanding its membership while keeping the number of playoff participants static. A league that started out with 80 percent of its members qualifying for the postseason, now admits a much more reasonable 50 percent. Next year that will be down to 44.4 percent, which will actually make the MLS playoffs considerably more exclusive than in either the NBA or NHL (both admit 53.3 percent).
Expansion has also contributed to the disparity between the final playoff spot and the No. 9 position. If the season ended now, .310 PPM would separate the Colorado Rapids from the Kansas City Wizards. That would be a larger gap than in any season other than 2001 when .346 separated the Dallas Burn from the New England Revolution.
I'm not necessarily convinced that parity -- or lack of it -- has ever been the issue some would have you believe it is in MLS, but if there was ever time for the league to stop pandering to the parity crowd, this is it. More than ever, teams' fortunes are being decided by clever front offices, shrewd coaches and identifiable on-field talent. It is no coincidence that, for the most part, the top MLS Cup contenders are also near the top of the attendance table.
At the same time, cash-poor teams are not be excluded from being competitive. Chicago and Toronto are among the biggest spenders, but are out of the playoffs. RSL, FC Dallas, Colorado, Columbus and San Jose are among the league's lower spenders and have remained competitive. In the case of RSL, they have become one of the new model franchises. The disparity I speak of is not about who has money, it is about who makes better decisions. Teams that make poor decisions are being punished more than ever now, which is just how it should be.
The league is now at a very different place than it was in 2001 -- the last year a similar disparity existed. That season ultimately led to the only time MLS has contracted, as the league folded the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion during the offseason. A lack of on-the-field parity was not the main culprit, though. While the Mutiny were among the worst teams in league history (.48 PPM), the Fusion were coming off a Supporters' Shield campaign (2.038 PPM, second best in league history).
The problem in both cases was an in-the-stands disparity as fans seemed to care equally little about both. The Fusion were pulling in an average of about 11,000 fans -- actually a high-water mark for them -- while calling a converted high school football stadium in Ft. Lauderdale their home. The Mutiny were playing their matches in essentially empty Raymond James Stadium, where an average crowd of about 10,500 were reported each game. The death knell for both was an inability to find local ownership that had a viable way forward.
MLS still has its problem franchises, to be sure. That the Earthquakes are still playing in a converted college baseball stadium and drawing fewer than 10,000 fans a game is obviously not good. That DC United and the New England Revolution -- two of the league's most successful franchises -- have no immediate plans to leave their cavernous stadiums is unfortunate. That the Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew and FC Dallas play in soccer-specific stadiums and still draw fewer than 15,000 a game is not acceptable.
But these are all relatively manageable problems when looking at the league as a whole. In 2001, those bad situations were weighed against teams that were only successful by relative measurements. Now, there are several franchises that are successful by almost any standard.
In a weird way, off-the-field disparity seems to be allowing for a more acceptable level of on-the-field disparity.
Next year, MLS will have 18 teams, nearly twice as many as it had at the start of the 2002 season. Within two years, MLS could conceivably be at 20 teams.
This league is finally growing up, and part of growing up is learning to ride without training wheels.