The one-year turnaround phenomenon

Three of Major League Soccer’s four conference finalists in 2010 didn’t qualify for the playoff

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Last year, the Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas and San Jose Earthquakes occupied the bottom three spots in the Western Conference and subsequently missed out on the MLS Cup Playoffs.

This year, that trio makes up 75 percent of the league’s conference finalists.

What’s more, with FCD taking on the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference Championship and the Rapids meeting the Earthquakes in the Eastern Conference Championship, at least one team which didn’t make the postseason in 2009 will challenge for MLS Cup 2010 on Nov. 21 at BMO Field in Toronto. Should Dallas knock off the Supporters’ Shield-winning Galaxy in the West, both sides in the 2010 title game will be non-playoff teams from last season.

Such is life in MLS, where recent history has proven that teams’ performances from year-to-year have little correlation.

“Every year is a different year, so you can’t base one year on the last,” said Revolution defender Darrius Barnes. “Every year takes on a life of its own. Every year teams are looking to get better and bring in new players, and I think that shows with a lot of the teams that have made the playoffs this year and are making some deep runs into the playoffs.”

Of the seven teams which didn’t make the playoffs in 2009, four reached the postseason in 2010. That figure includes the three previously-mentioned conference finalists and the New York Red Bulls, who went from worst-to-first in the Eastern Conference with a remarkable 30-point increase in the standings.

While the Red Bulls were admittedly boosted by a series of new acquisitions – including high-profile signings Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, plus the lower-profile-but-ultimately-more-effective Joel Lindpere and Tim Ream – the Rapids, Earthquakes and FCD were able to improve significantly in the standings with rosters largely similar from 2009 to 2010.

The phenomenon of the one-year turnaround is especially promising to the Revolution, which seemingly defied the odds by reaching the postseason for eight straight years from 2002-09 before having that streak snapped in 2010.

According to Chris Tierney, an overall improvement in quality of play and the league’s increasing level of parity have allowed for the dramatic reversals from year-to-year.

“The gaps between the teams are smaller and smaller every year,” he said. “The league continues to get better overall, and more teams have more quality players all the way through their squads.”

“You don’t see those teams who really run away (with the title) or see those blowouts,” added Barnes. “Early in the year LA had a huge point lead, but a lot of teams caught up with them toward the end. I think it’s a great competitive league and I think it’s only going to get better as the league continues to grow.”

Historically, success in MLS has often been linked to a combination of core veteran leadership and roster consistency, which was the hallmark of the Revolution sides which went to three straight league title games from 2005-07.

With longtime stalwarts like Jay Heaps, Jeff Larentowicz, Pat Noonan, Michael Parkhurst, Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman all departing in recent years, the Revs have seen their fair share of turnover. As a result, a younger, less-experienced team has taken shape while newer signings like Marko Perovic and Ilija Stolica have worked their way into the squad.

But while 2010 was a struggle in terms of results, it was far from a lost cause for the Revolution, which must take the lessons learned from this season and apply them in the future.

“We have to look at it as a year gained in experience,” said Tierney. “Obviously the results weren’t great, but it was definitely an opportunity for a bunch of our younger guys to grow up a little bit. Hopefully that experience that a lot of our young guys gained is going to pay off come next year.”

This offseason, the Revs will undoubtedly be looking to make additions to their roster as they aim to bolster the squad ahead of 2011, but just as important as any new signings will be the performances of those players who return to Foxborough for another year.

As for hopes and expectations heading into 2011, the Revs need look no further than the Rapids, Red Bulls, Earthquakes and FCD for examples of clubs which used one difficult season to catapult them into the next.

“It really proves that it’s still anyone’s game in this league and there are no teams that have really separated themselves as elite teams from any other,” said Tierney. “I think we’re ready to put this season behind us and we’re optimistic looking toward next year.”