Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, right? Unless you’re the crew from Apollo 13, no one ever gets remembered for getting “almost there.”
Still, almost-history is a funny thing. Take away the penalty-kick heroics by Nick Rimando in last year’s Eastern Conference final, and perhaps make sure someone paid their electric bill in LA during last year’s Western final, and we might have been talking about the Chicago Fire or Houston Dynamo defending their MLS Cup title this fall.
Fast-forward 11 months, and we’re staring at a postseason without either of last year’s losing conference finalists. In the history of MLS, that’s only happened once before, in 2003, when neither Columbus nor Colorado booked a return trip to the playoffs after falling at the last hurdle before MLS Cup the prior season.
But that was nowhere near as dramatic as the fall of Chicago and Houston. Their almost-glory aside, these teams have been, for all intents and purposes, the standard-bearers of recent success in MLS.
Now, for the second time in the 13-year-old club’s history, the Fire aren’t in the playoffs. Neither are the Dynamo, snapping a 10-year streak for the franchise (dating back to their former incarnation in San Jose).
[inline_node:319021]That isn’t almost strange. That’s downright weird.
Pro sports are littered with stories of fallen powerhouses. That thin line between glory and lean years is what bookends dynasties. Just ask the New York Yankees of the 1980s or the Chicago Bulls of the 2000s – heck, even this year’s D.C. United.
But it’s rarely as dramatic as perennial contenders both crashing back to earth at the same time. Chicago and Houston are both suffering, but for vastly different philosophies.
“Change” has been a dirty word in Houston. Dominic Kinnear has built one of the most successful systems in MLS by sticking to the same basic principals: classic 4-4-2 play, minimizing star power while maximizing team contribution, and replacing departed players from within.
That approach has produced a Supporters’ Shield (in San Jose in ’05) and back-to-back MLS Cups immediately upon the franchise’s move to Houston. More so, it produced a level of consistency and stability that many teams envied.
This season, things finally stopped bouncing Kinnear's way. Wade Barrett’s retirement probably hurt the team more than anyone is willing to admit. Meanwhile, Geoff Cameron, the next-big-thing who stepped up for yet more departed stars like Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden, missed 18 games through all competitions with a PCL tear.
Injury problems devastated other parts of the roster, too, in unprecedented ways. Major contributors Brian Ching, Brad Davis, and Pat Onstad all missed large stretches. Critically, the defense broke down at key moments. Houston has given up 11 goals in the final 15 minutes this season, including a record four game-winning goals in stoppage time this season.
“That’s taken some valuable points from us and given some valuable points to someone else,” Kinnear told MLSsoccer.com. “That has hurt us.”
Momentum has also been a killer. The Dynamo have not won back-to-back MLS games since June 2009, and Kinnear regrets the fact that his team has not experienced that feeling of getting on a roll. With a fully healthy roster and a fresh start, Kinnear believes his squad would not be sitting at home this postseason.
“If we were just starting the season, we wouldn’t have same record,” he said. “It’s just been a year in which the mistakes we’ve made, we’ve been 100 percent punished for. There’s enough quality in that locker room.”
In Chicago, it’s been a very different story. Houston at least has won two MLS Cups in recent years; for the Fire, last year’s painful exit marked the third consecutive time Chicago had been knocked out in the Eastern Conference final.
[inline_node:316522]That was not good enough in Bridgeview, and the Fire decided it was time to make changes. Big changes. Until this past offseason, Chicago was also known for stability. Sure, the head coaches changed frequently after Bob Bradley left in 2003 – but through it all, most of the coaching staff remained the same, as did the roster.
But that was not getting the Fire over the final hurdle. The hiring of Carlos de los Cobos in January reflected an enormous philosophical change in the club’s direction. For the first time in team history, the reins were entrusted to an MLS outsider who brought in new ideas and fresh perspective on how to run a team.
Then Chicago struggled. The Fire have played some pretty soccer over stretches, and there have been moments of brilliance, but the up-tempo style de los Cobos wanted coupled with a wave of change was too much for the team to handle.
Whether you agree or disagree with the Fire’s change in direction, it is hard to fault the organization for deciding to overhaul. Big changes often take time before they start bearing fruit.
The Fire’s longtime veterans admit it has been a difficult season of adjustments – “It’s been a rough year,” Brian McBride diplomatically told MLSsoccer.com – and those struggles have been hard to swallow given the team’s history of success.
“Honestly, there’s talent on this team,” Fire original C.J. Brown told MLSsoccer.com. “And I say there is a lot of individual talent. If you take that individual talent and jell it as a team – which I know that Carlos is trying to do right now – if we can get that to happen, this club is going to be right back on top again.”
It’s funny – missing the playoffs for the first time in a long time is not the worst thing in the world for Houston and Chicago. In fact, it is a chance for them to look objectively at what went wrong and how to fix it.
For their fans, however, it’s a bitter pill to swallow when your team is this close and then takes a step backward. Houston and Chicago know this. They won’t be down for long.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.