Two of Major League Soccer's most historically successful franchises won't be competing for a title this season. The Houston Dynamo, back-to-back MLS Cup winners in 2006 and 2007, and the team they beat for those two titles, the New England Revolution, will play out their regular season schedule and begin to focus on 2011 after being mathematically eliminated from the playoff race. The fortunes of these two clubs, contending stalwarts for so long, looks to be another sign that MLS is heading in an uncharted direction; for the first time in MLS history, only half the league will make the post-season. Combined with a growing emphasis on foreign talent, both ultra-expensive and mid-level, the league has become a greater challenge for two clubs known for consistent on-field success.
Dominic Kinnear and Steve Nicol are two of the league's best coaches. A down year hasn't changed that, though each has struggled to fill out their rosters with players capable of competing against a league that is evolving; with the amount of money being spent and the new talent entering the league, neither the Dynamo not the Revolution were prepared to keep up in 2010. Neither club has dipped their toes into the DP waters beyond Houston's gamble on the unproven Luis Angel Landin (technically a DP due to loan considerations), and each has faced the loss of key contributors through departure or injury. Settling on a stable best eleven proved nearly impossible for each throughout the 2010 campaign.
The Revolution's playoff streak ends after eight consecutive appearances, a run which saw them make four MLS Cup Final appearances without winning trophy. The hard luck Revolution became the "Buffalo Bills of MLS" for that reason, a very good team for an extended period unable to capitalize and capture the ultimate prize. In the parity-driven world of MLS, the Revs' streak was impressive simply because dominance is so difficult; but with the run now over, natural questions on the direction of the club in a league that threatens to pass them by will persist.
In Houston, the Dynamo were unable to replace important players like Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark and suffered because of it. The injury that kept Geoff Cameron out for the bulk of the season was a significant blow. Consistency has been difficult; the Dynamo began the year alternating wins and losses for two consecutive months and have won just twice in their last eight league matches. The Dynamo will miss the playoffs for the first time since moving to Houston, a run that never saw them finish lower than second in the Western Conference. The second of their consecutive titles was just three years ago and though they went to the Western Conference final last year, time and attrition have turned the Dynamo from contender to also-ran in the blink of an eye.
As both teams play out the string and look forward to 2011, they'll see the landscape changing again. Two new entries in Portland and Vancouver means another expansion draft, and the possible loss of a contributor. Provided the playoff structure doesn't change, spots int he post-season will be at an even higher premium, increasing the imperative to bring in upgrades in talent. Kinnear and Nicol will have difficult decisions to make, and though their coaching resumes prove they know how create a winner, the task of doing so in MLS has never been as hard.
From an outsider's perspective, the clubs seem to be headed in opposite directions in many ways. While the Dynamo have talked seriously about bringing in a high-talent DP, the Revs have maintained a "pass" mentality on the rule. The Dynamo will play 2011 in Robertson Stadium with an eye towards building momentum for the 2012 opening of their dedicated facility, while the Revs continue to dance around the subject of exploring stadium options and seem content with remaining in ill-fitting Gillette Stadium. Little is coming out of New England on any club efforts to build on the new MLS academy push, while Houston already has 18 year-old Fernando Navas Cobo signed to the senior team and seem certain to bring through more young players. If we're to judge these two (perhaps temporarily) fallen dynasties on the merits of their apparent investment in returning to the top, optimism is the order of the day in Texas and something less than that in New England.
The failure of both the Dynamo and Revolution to make the playoffs after several years as perennial challengers might just be a coincidence. In a league where parity is enforced as a means to ensure fan interest from season to season, every club faces the possibility of a down year eventually, and is almost certain to endure one. But even if this is nothing more than circumstance, a changing of the guard has occurred; for the first time since 2001, there will be no Revs in the playoffs. For the first time since their the arrived in Houston, there will be no Dynamo.
Though it would be folly to bet against either making it back in 2011, it's not difficult to imagine both missing out again. In a changing MLS, it's not going to get any easier.