By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 13, 2013) US Soccer Players – It’s easy enough to forget what Major League Soccer was like in its formative years. DC United’s dominance overshadowed entertaining soccer from clubs that included Colorado and Tampa Bay. With defense a luxury in the early seasons, the games were looser as coaches and players began to figure out what winning in MLS really meant. The league was still in transition by the first round of expansion in 1998, creating the opportunity for a first year club to win the MLS and Open cups.
Even then, things were beginning to change. Miami and Chicago entered the league with plans and players in place. Though Chicago took the headlines with their titles, Miami also put together a team capable of competing. The template for success was there, and even expansion teams could see how to put that into practice.
So what do we make, 13 years later, of the 2000 Kansas City Wizards? It’s easy enough with the renaming and new stadium to pretend like the bad old days of 4,000 people watching an underwhelming team play out their schedule in Arrowhead Stadium never really happened. That overlooks a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup winner. In 2000, the two teams to lose less than 10 games ended up playing each other for the MLS Cup. Kansas City and Chicago, two teams that spent the season playing a very different style.
Bob Bradley’s Chicago was a streamlined version of what he first put together in 1998. The squad was a mix of younger players, European veterans, and showing up other MLS clubs by choosing well. DaMarcus Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra, Josh Wolff, and Zach Thornton alongside Lubos Kubic, Peter Nowak, and Hristo Stoitchkov. Chicago put three midfielders on the league’s Best XI in 2000, building the kind of squad that’s all about creativity and moving the ball.
Kansas City coach Bob Gansler opted for established players that he believed could still put in a season’s worth of elite work. 2000 was the renaissance year for US National Team veterans Tony Meola and Peter Vermes. Strong at the back, Kansas City made one of the best offseason moves in MLS history when they picked up Miklos Molnar. Nobody outside of the Kansas City setup saw it coming. Molnar quickly became an impact player, changing the way other teams needed to adapt to have a chance of beating the Wizards.
There’s a reason that players like Vermes and Chris Henderson ended up coaches and technical directors. By 2000, both had figured out MLS. Their styles complimented what their team needed. For Molnar, it was an opportunity to play with a group that had a clear vision of what it would take to win a title. This was a results oriented club in a way that was new for the league, one not prone to the malaise and lapses we associate even with contenders in the modern era of Major League Soccer.
What wasn’t clear in 2000 was how modern the Wizards really were. They built for a single season, forgetting the disaster in 1999 when they had the second worst record in the league and relying on players that might not be there or might never again perform at the level necessary for a championship. MLS never seemed comfortable with the idea of dynasties. Though the league stresses parity, the lack of true free agency means clubs can keep their players over multiple seasons. They can build around a core group, taking a team through several seasons and multiple shots at trophies. Not in Kansas City. This was a team built for a single season, something seen as a flaw at the time.
The 2000 MLS Cup isn’t a high water mark for the league then or now. Over a tepid 90 minutes, Kansas City scored early and held on. Chicago, tied with Kansas City for the most regular season points, shot and shot at Meola’s goal in a panicked search for an equalizer. The ball didn’t cooperate, and Kansas City won 1-0. What that overshadows were the two regular season meetings between the clubs, a 4-3 KC win at Arrowhead on opening day and a 3-2 loss at Soldier Field on June 4th. These were both teams that figured out a style and stuck to it over the regular season. For the Wizards, that included a pragmatism that was on full display on October 15th at RFK Stadium. Meola won man of the match and the League’s MVP award, took Best XI honors, and set his own standard for an elite player regaining that status in Major League Soccer. The team built for a season lasted just that long, doing everything necessary to win in 2000.
By 2001, they were third in a four-team Western Division and exiting the playoffs in the opening round. Their reward for winning MLS Cup, a spot in the Copa Merconorte, was just as disappointing. It wasn’t just the retirement of Molnar that turned the best team in MLS in 2000 into a mid-table disappointment in 2001. It was the planning an intensity to put together a team suited for a single-season run.
That’s the lesson for MLS teams in 2013. It’s not necessarily about multiple seasons of contending. Kansas City showed in 2000 that you could build for single season success, copying the model normally associated with teams in Mexico and the South American leagues, only to need to build all over again. In 2013, that’s not the path most MLS clubs take. What Kansas City asked in 2000 was what would happen if you built for right now. They accepted that what works one season might not mean anything for the next. Their answer should be an object lesson for every team in Major League Soccer in 2013.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson: