Every few years, United fans, we have to go through this. Somebody wants to claim that their team has a claim to the dynasty mantle or that theirs is the best American club side to step foot on the field. The latest is LA Galaxy COO and former MLS player Chris Klein, who said at the Galaxy's victory rally earlier this week, "I think we're looking at the greatest team in American soccer history." Klein is certainly entitled to his opinion - and nobody can seriously fault him for erring on the side of cheerleading (while celebrating a second-consecutive MLS Cup title, no less) - but it's equally certain that not everybody is going to agree with him.
But this is the Internet, so we're going to make it about those of us in the DMV for a second. Reactions among United faithful ranged from "LOL" to "12 > 11" to "Call me when you've beaten Vasco da Gama." I think as the unquestioned first great MLS team, a lot of D.C. fans have an understandably quick trigger when it comes to defending our club's historic status atop the heap, especially in a season where we went from "only club with four MLS Cups" to "first club with four MLS Cups," a change I hoped I wouldn't have to get used to this offseason. But are we right to be defensive? Do D.C. United even have a claim of their own to the title?
Before we try to answer any of these questions, a note on what this isn't: This is not a question of dynasty status. I asked and answered that one before the 2011 season. The always-excellent Josie Becker at our SB Nation sister-blog LAG Confidential took a stab at the issue last week - and her conclusion on the Galaxy might surprise you. This is also not a debate about "brand" - there's no question the Galaxy are the best-known MLS franchise on almost any level, and moreover, that's not the point that Klein was making: "Superclub" is about q-rating, "greatest of all time" is about quality between the white lines.
It was actually another of Josie's pieces that spurred me into writing this. She asks which teams throughout American Soccer History have a claim to the crown. Before you read any more here, go read her very well-researched effort.
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Welcome back. Josie's take actually made me realize that we're operating without a working definition of "best" or "greatest" and, more importantly, without a definition of "team." I realize this might sound like it's approaching absurdity, but bear with me. Going back to Klein's original statement, if he means that the L.A. Galaxy of the 2012 season are the greatest "team" of all-time, he's so self-evidently wrong I'll debunk it with a parenthetical (9th best regular season record in the league, 5th in the Western Conference, absolutely dreadful first half of the year, lost two playoff games if not any playoff series, crashed out of the U.S. Open Cup to a lower-tier side, was inconsistent and hit-or-miss all year and through the playoffs). So we'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that's not what he meant. That narrows it down to a couple different meanings: the Galaxy through their 17-year history are the greatest team the U.S. has ever produced, or the Galaxy of the last few years are.
Josie takes on the longer-term picture of what he meant by "team", looking at the Galaxy's entire history as well as that of D.C. United, the New York Cosmos and two pre-NASL teams - hell, pre-WWII - Bethlehem (Pa.) Steel and the Fall River (Mass.) Marksmen. Having not been born until the dying years of the NASL, I don't have any first-hand knowledge of the Cosmos, let alone the nigh legendary Bethlehem Steel or the slightly less-nigh to legendary Marksmen. That said, the eye test might not tell us much more than the numbers do. All teams are products of their respective eras, and we're looking at no fewer than three eras (arguably four if you want to break MLS history into the proverbial versions 1.0 and 2.0), with different levels of competition/talent and different phases of development of the game.
If we are looking at that decade-plus sort of window, I think Josie's take is probably right. Using whatever criteria for "greatest" we want, we can narrow it down to a few contenders (and from what little research I've done, she's got the right five in her list), but outside of personal taste and temporal/geographic accident, we're not going to be able to definitely conclude who the GOAT is. We could do the research and compare win totals, points totals, trophy counts, goals scored and more, but in the end, it boils down to "Well I think I'm right." Example: just on the question of L.A. and D.C., we can point to one club winning most of its trophies when the league had fewer teams and talent was more concentrated, while the other won the bulk of its in an era where the talent pool was spread thinner due to the quickest expansionary period in the league's history. Some might argue that our memories have exaggerated the greatness of the early United teams, and others would point to recency bias as affecting any analysis of the Galaxy. Limiting the debate to D.C. and L.A. - which most of us probably tend to do - is itself a product of recency bias (and lack of real exposure to the earlier sides). Fans of D.C., L.A. or the older clubs just aren't ever going to agree on this question if we're looking at each team's entire history. (And that's okay! Barroom arguments like this are fun!)
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Having concluded (or failed to conclude) the debate using that view, let's look at a shorter window. My first interpretation of Klein's "looking at the greatest team in American soccer history" was that he meant the Galaxy of the last few years is better or has accomplished more, etc., than any team that came before. There's no questioning that since Bruce Arena's first full season at the helm in 2009, the Galaxy have been the class of MLS, winning two Supporters' Shields and appearing in three MLS Cup finals, claiming two of them. Four trophies in as many years is a very nice haul. But it might not even be the best period in the Galaxy's history - in the three seasons from 2000 through 2002, the Gals won the CONCACAF Champions' Cup (precursor to the CCL), a U.S. Open Cup and both MLS trophies. Granted, L.A.'s latest run is still ongoing (though how they'll fare without David Beckham or the possibly-retiring Landon Donovan or the sure-to-move-to-Europe-someday-soon Omar Gonzalez is an open question), and if they manage to win multiple trophies next year, they'll actually meet all the criteria we discerned a couple years ago for an MLS dynasty.
While the Cosmos run of five titles and one runner-up in 11 seasons (1972-82) and the Marksmen's insane count of seven titles in a decade aren't likely ever to be matched in MLS, and the trailblazing of those Bethlehem sides shouldn't be forgotten, my vote for greatest team in American history goes - predictably - to the 1990s D.C. United. Eight trophies in four years is just a silly haul in the U.S. You can say that the shootout and playoff structure and small league size and anything else should poison these accomplishments, but I'd disagree: Like I said, all teams are products of their eras, and United were playing by the same rules as everybody else; it was never preordained that somebody was going to boss the league to this extent in its early days. Do today's Galaxy teams belong in the conversation? Of course, though it pains me some to say it. Worse, L.A. could even overtake the early-MLS D.C. sides' accomplishments in the next few years, but it's going to be a big, big lift, even for the Bruce, and I'm not bullish on their prospects. In any event, looking beyond the hardware, give me a time machine and a neutral field somewhere in time and space, and I'll take late-90s United against any club side the U.S. has produced before or since, and that's how I'm basing my vote. (Aside: anybody who writes a piece simulating a TARDIS-league of the great American sides from throughout our history will earn my undying love and devotion.)
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This ultimately all comes down to the old "my dad could beat up your dad" classic everybody's been fighting with everybody else since grade school. And we should embrace that. Soccer in this country is at the point now where we can have silly-yet-somehow-credible debates - like this one - that wouldn't look out-of-place on PTI or Around the Horn. We can argue the criteria we should use and the parameters of debate and still never reach a conclusion. And that's awesome. So, even though he's wrong, I'd like to thank Chris Klein for saying something that reminded me of that and compelled me to take a couple hours of my day to write 1500+ words about a GOAT.
For the record, my dad could totally beat up your dad.