By beating the Colorado Rapids 1-0 on Friday, the Los Angeles Galaxy became the first team to qualify for this season's MLS Cup playoffs. Their 55 points through 28 games is already as good or better as seven of the previous 15 Supporters' Shield winners. That total is also better than all but three Shield-winning totals since 1999, the last year in which no ties were awarded.
On their current pace, the Galaxy would claim 67 points, the third most in MLS history and easily the highest total of the post-2000 era. Even accounting for the extra games, the Galaxy will be playing (no previous MLS season included more than 32 games), their 1.96 points per match would be the third best figure of the current era. With a win on Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps (and let's be honest about that prospect...) they would equal the 2005 San Jose Earthquakes for the best PPM (2.0) of this era.
As weird as it may seem, this year's Galaxy squad is shaping up to be one of the best in MLS history.
Beyond the obvious point totals, there are some pretty compelling variables working in their favor. For me, the single-best indicator of a "great" team is actually goal-difference. This Galaxy team is looking very solid there as well.
At +18, the Galaxy have the best goal-difference in MLS. If the season ended today, that would be tied for the fifth-highest total post-2000. If they can maintain their current pace, they'd end up about +22, which would be tied for the second highest of this era.
If we consider the combination of winning games and outscoring your opponents by a wide margin to be the pinnacle of regular-season excellence, this year's Galaxy team is making an even more compelling case. Only the '05 Earthquakes are currently better by both metrics from this era and only three other teams -- the 1999 DC United team that won the Double, the 1998 Galaxy side that posted an improbable goal-difference of +41 and the 1998 United team that lost a tiebreaker for the Shield -- have been better in the entirety of the league's history.
But these are just numbers. A truly great team reaches beyond facts and figures to stand the test of time. This Galaxy team seems to fit that bill as well.
Just look at their roster. Landon Donovan has to be the headliner. Arguably the greatest American soccer player in history, he is once again enjoying a MVP-caliber season. His goal last Friday was his 12th of the season, tied for the league lead. Combined with his three assists, no player with at least 1,500 minutes of playing time can top his .78 goals+assists per 90 minutes.
The team's biggest name, David Beckham, is also finally starting to live up to his reputation. After four mostly disappointing seasons in which he only appeared in 40 percent of his team's games, the 36-year-old midfielder has two goals and 12 assists, while playing solid defense. His set-piece service has made every dead ball from 50 yards in a legitimate scoring opportunity, with the Galaxy scoring a league-leading 14 goals off free kicks and corners. Just as importantly, he has played in 22 of 28 games despite fighting several nagging injuries.
Throw Irish international Robbie Keane into the mix and the Galaxy have a collection of high-profile offensive stars that is unrivaled in the league's history.
Defense You Can't Ignore
Real Salt Lake's MLS record of 20 goals allowed is safe, but this Galaxy defense is nothing to sniff at. The shutout of the Rapids was their 14th of the season, just one fewer than last year's RSL team that set the MLS record for clean sheets.
Personnel-wise, the Galaxy are pretty well stacked. Omar Gonzalez, Sean Franklin and AJ DeLaGarza are all players that have received national team consideration. Todd Dunivant is among the most underrated defenders in all of MLS, and should probably be getting serious looks as a national team left back.
They've managed to do this while only getting six starts this year from Gregg Berhalter and seven starts from Leonardo, both of whom were expected to be significant contributors. Meanwhile, a veteran like Frankie Hejduk (three appearances) has barely even been needed.
The play of the backline has helped overcome the loss of starter Donovan Ricketts for significant chunks of the season. The Jamaican has been stellar when he's played, registering seven shutout in 13 games and posting a goals against average of .49, but he has missed more than half of the Galaxy's games. Four different players have made at least one appearance in goal for the Galaxy, with all of them having a hand in at least one shutout.
The play of the defense has also allowed Juninho to take on more of a box-to-box role, as opposed to the more defensive posture he was forced into last year. The talented Brazilian has responded with four goals and two assists.
With Ricketts only now returning to full health, the defense is poised to get even better.
A Build-It-Yourself Fortress
Like all great teams, this Galaxy side gets downright unbeatable when they play in front of their own fans. Through 14 games, the Galaxy are 9-0-5 and poised to become just the third team in MLS history to go undefeated at home. In those games, they've outscored their opponents 22-7, having allowed more than a goal just once (surprisingly enough to Toronto FC).
They also seem to be getting better as the season wears on. They are currently riding a five-match home winning streak and have outscored their opponents 9-2 over that stretch.
But Where Will It All Lead?
In a league as parity-ridden as MLS, it may not come as a huge surprise the regular-season success does not necessarily translate to the crap-shoot known as the playoffs. Although Shield winners have won five MLS Cups, it has happened just once since 2002 when the Galaxy were within a win in the U.S. Open Cup final away from becoming the first MLS team to win the Treble. In fact, the No. 8 seed in the playoff has won the MLS Cup as many times (three) in the past six years as all the other seeds combined.
Playoff success appears to be particularly hard to come by for "great" regular season teams. Of the five teams who won the Shield and posted impressive GD's, just one of them went on to win the Cup and that was way back in 1999 when DC United won the double with 69 points and a +25 goal-diference.
In the modern era, only one MLS Cup winner posted a goal-difference as high as +15 during the regular season. That team, the 2007 Houston Dynamo, were +20 for the regular season, but finished with the third highest point total (52).
That's all just another way of saying that as good as the Galaxy have been and may continue to be, nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs. It should be interesting to see if the new playoff format works as it was intended and gives the Shield winner an easier path to the finals or if we're once again left with a less-than-deserving champion.
If all goes according to plan, the season that started as MLS Cup-or-bust for the Galaxy, could end up being a season for the ages.