What’s Luck Got to Do With It?

So, given the bad luck that cost them two points in LA, but at the same time the good luck that kept the team undefeated until this past weekend, it seems obvious that luck plays a huge role week to week, but what about over a whole season? DC United this year has a unique mixture of young and old that almost certainly will need a bit of luck in order to garner an MLS Cup this year. So that begs the question is it better to be lucky or good?

Obviously, LA in 2005 was supremely lucky to win the Cup, but then again the Galaxy dominated the league in 2002 and truly deserved that title. DC United has four MLS Cups to their name, and there are quite a few party poopers who cast aspersions on two of those trophies because United didn’t “deserve” them. Of course, there are a few other teams polishing MLS Cups that may not have “deserved” them either, so how much of a role does luck play in winning the Cup?

Obviously, winning a Supporter’s Shield has very little to do with luck (usually) and in a perfect world would be considered the most important trophy of the year, but in the wacky world of MLS as well as due to the American psyche, playoffs and winning the last game of the year outweigh consistent season long success. So, scraping into the playoffs and getting hot for five games outweighs a season’s worth of effort. Sad, but true.

However, the regular season championship is also the only basis for this whole debate about who deserves to win the Cup each year and who steals it away as most people agree that the teams that win the regular season title, or are pretty close to winning it, are widely recognized as the teams that deserve to win the Cup if the soccer gods weren’t so fickle.

Interestingly, winning both the Shield and the Cup has only happened five times in 13 seasons including the Crew last year. DC did it twice in their golden age as well as KC and LA in 2000 and 2002 respectively. In fact, the best team of the season won the Cup 4 out of the first 7 years. But, until the Crew pulled it off last year, over the last 6 years, winning the SS was pretty much considered the death knell for MLS Cup hopes. For example, DC United ran off with two straight Shields and a remarkable 31 wins and 17 more draws over 62 games from 2006-2007, but got only 1 win and 1 draw out of 5 games in getting drummed out of the playoffs both years.

In fact, the two years prior to DC’s run, the Shield winner was also dumped out in the first round of the playoffs. SJ had the best record in the history of MLS, and was dusted off by the epitome of lucky Cup winners, the Galaxy who absolutely stole the Cup in 2005. Then the Crew finished the season number one in 2004, and was summarily dismissed by the lowly Revs in the first round.

So, let’s take a look at the Cup winners and their relative records and see where that gets us. Obviously, DC in 1996 has to be considered a pretty lucky winner after going 16-16 over the course of the year and qualifying as the fifth seed (# 2 in the weak East). But, DC rolled over the Shield winners from Tampa and past the Crew into the final against LA. Despite finishing second in the points race, the Galaxy had actually been the dominant team all that year, and even held a two goal lead going into the last 17 minutes in Foxboro, when DC snatched the rug out from underneath them.

Then again, DC in 1997 and 1999 were anything but lucky as they pretty much toyed with the league those years. Even in 1998, when the Fire were handed the Cup by Bozo the Referee, it really wasn’t as butt lucky as it seemed since Chicago had won 20 games that year and finished as the third seed overall behind LA and DC.

Nor was the 2000 Cup luck as KC steamrolled the league winning the Shield with a startlingly good defense and beat the number two seed Fire in the final. Then, LA in 2002 was also a very deserving winner, much as it pains me to say that having actually been at that abomination of a Cup final in Foxboro that year. Still, LA won the Shield and deserved that Cup, I suppose.

However, luck was beginning to rear its head the year before, in 2001, signaling a dramatic change in fortunes for the teams that won the regular season. SJ won the first of their two Cups in 2001 after qualifying 5th overall and needing a miracle to get past a Fusion team that had won the Shield, while the equally good Fire team that year failed to make the final either. SJ even finished behind the Galaxy in conference play that season, yet beat them in the final to add to their unworthiness.

In 2003, SJ did deserve the Cup though having finished a close second to the Shield winning Fire and then beating them in the final. All of which brings us to the recent years described above. DC got lucky with a win streak at just the right time in 2004, taking their fourth seed to the Cup over a KC team equally as good as the Shield winning Crew. LA committing highway robbery in 2005 as the 8th and by far lowest seed to ever win a Cup. Then Houston was actually the second lowest as a five seed in 2006 when they won in their first Cup over an equally undeserving NE in the final. But, the Dynamo did well and truly earn their second Cup in 2007 finishing a close third to DC and Chivas that year.

So to summarize, while the Shield winners have only won the Cup five times, teams who were in the top four and pretty close to the top won four more times. Leaving only four times out of thirteen that a team has come from way down in the pack to pull off the upset. Clearly, it is far better to be good than lucky.

So, where does this leave DC? Hopefully, it leaves them with some incentive to finish in the top four, because lightning rarely strikes twice in the same spot. DC played average twice, picked up a dynamic player late in the season and got hot at the right time, but what are the chances that happens this year? However, no matter what unfolds this season, if they expect to be in with a shout by the end of the season, they better figure out how to play with a lot more scrap and fight to their game, or they are going to need luck bordering on the miraculous to be in the top ten.

So, while this column was a nice distraction from my other point about soft play, that fatal flaw in the team is still festering in the back of my mind, so I can only give them one last chance to put their handbags away and put that column off for another week. If DC goes paws up Friday night allowing NE to stroll in here and steamroll us with barely a whimper, it could be a pretty vicious column next week!

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