NYCFC, Red Bulls, Dallas built for the regular season, not playoff progression
There were plenty of unprompted critiques coming from the press box during New York City FC's capitulation to Toronto on Sunday, but some variation of the idea that "they're just not a playoff team" idea came up repeatedly. Far from discussing NYCFC alone, though, the assertion was extended to the city's other club; earlier the same day the Red Bulls had been knocked out of the postseason themselves.
It's routine in MLS circles to question the value of the Supporters' Shield, particularly with a lopsided schedule that obscures the comparative value of the award and the dubious rewards of seeding under the current playoff format.
But it's possible we're seeing schisms that should give us pause about the way teams go about trying to win MLS Cup; looking at the four eliminated conference semifinalists, one could argue that three of them were built for regular-season success more than playoff progress.
LA tends to be the exception, and nobody has managed the nuances of MLS competition better than Bruce Arena. Further, it could be argued that the Galaxy's transitional 2016 was always offset by a belief that even a flawed or emerging team could make the playoffs, then have enough experience for a puncher's chance. But was anyone really surprised when their season ended as it did in 2013, with a gassed and flawed team exiting early?
However, in both New York teams, as well as Dallas, postseason alchemy remains elusive. Granted, to talk about NYCFC in these terms is to talk of a tiny sample size. Having made the playoffs at all has to go down as a success for the new franchise.
But looking at the team's strengths and weaknesses, it was always likely that the "we're going to score one more than you" approach, which gave them regular-season swagger, was a glass jaw waiting to be broken by away goals in the playoffs.
Looking at the experience and solidity of the four playoff contenders that remain -- Seattle, Colorado, Toronto and Montreal -- it's striking how different they look, compared to an NYCFC roster built on designated players as foundational elements, rather than the sprinkle of quality that puts a solid team over the top.
Manager Patrick Vieira deserves enormous credit for working with the tools and circumstances at his disposal, but the transition from regular season to playoffs will continue to be cruel unless NYCFC learns pragmatism. Certainly they need to heed the lesson of attempting to discover it on the fly in Toronto.
The Red Bulls, meanwhile, were so consistent in regular season play, yet such a blunt force in the playoffs. The team has won two Supporters' Shields in the past four years and was within a game of being last-day contenders again this year, despite a start of one win and six losses. That suggests the values of resilience and character that coach Jesse Marsch has tried to emphasize.
Add in the willingness to develop and play youth, plus the depth indicated by reserve team Red Bulls II's USL Cup win this year, and New York represents the model of a successful soccer club both structurally and in terms of organizational priority.
There are wrinkles -- Sacha Kljestan had 20 assists and Bradley Wright-Phillips scored 24 goals -- but, in general, Marsch's side adopts a team-is-the-star logic. That fuels the blue-collar feel of their pressing style and seems built on a statistical interpretation that the team will win more regular-season games than it loses.
But when a team that forces goals and concentration lapses during the regular season comes up against playoff opponents tightened and looking to manage game states over two legs, the Red Bulls don't find goals so easy to plunder.
Put them in against a team like Montreal and the Red Bulls were always going to have to find another level. Their repeated failure to do so speaks less of a "Metro curse" and more of the team-building logic of MLS competition.
And on that note, Dallas might be the model citizens for the current stated priorities of the league. Like the Red Bulls they are frugal and heavily invested in young players. Moreover, in Oscar Pareja, Dallas has a coach prepared to risk that youth in competition, though with the added experience that maybe should have put them over the top this year.
However, the attacking flair that blew away many opponents in the regular season was also a factor in their downfall, albeit not quite as decisive as the loss of Mauro Diaz right as the playoffs began.
Dallas kept its engine in high gear during the first leg of the series against Seattle, neglected game management and was undone in nine minutes by the Sounders playing on the outside.
In those moments you saw the bulldozing lack of patience that has left Dallas making too many doomed late charges under Pareja. Yes, on their day Dallas can play any team in the league out of the park, but their habit of suddenly folding made them precarious top seeds.
Pareja, Marsch and Vieira might solve their teams' flaws -- maybe as soon as next year -- but you have to wonder about the cost to the regular-season spectacle if they do. These teams are fun to watch before the playoffs begin but, more often than not, they're soon gone in October and November.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.