What if D.C. United had kept most of its team intact after winning three of the first four MLS Cups? Would the team coach Bruce Arena built have established a dynastic dominance? Would parity have been put to rest? Would that have been bad for the MLS?
D.C. United has been on the verge of regaining hegemony over MLS rivals, winning the 2004 MLS Cup and running away with the Eastern Conference regular season this year. But United has not been able to match the standards of its earlier teams, which realistically expected to outscore any MLS opponent anytime, anywhere.
In fact, "outscore" is the operative word for those D.C. teams. United had defenders such as Carlos Llamosa and Eddie Pope, but the emphasis was on attacking soccer. The defense might surrender a couple goals, but Marco Etcheverry and Co. were capable of matching, or bettering, anything the opposition could produce.
And that is the really disheartening aspect of parity in MLS. Even those who believe in the concept of parity -- and parity appears to be an essential byproduct of central planning and salary caps -- must recognize that the true casualty in the decline of D.C. United was attacking soccer itself.
Since then, the MLS trend has been to establish well-organized, physical, tough-tackling defensive teams. These squads are built to take points on the road. They prevent the home team from creating anything and are content to counterattack in a relatively unsophisticated manner. Limited rosters and demanding road trips played a part in this trend, with hard-charging disruptive players winning out over inspiring, uninhibited creators.
In recent seasons, very few MLS teams have consistently demonstrated a willingness to go forward for 90 minutes in road games. Yes, such tactics can be considered self-defeating. Yes, they work only if a team has the right players for the system. And, yes, maybe this is an indication of the overall level of MLS' creative talent.
Some teams that are able and willing to play offensive-minded soccer are Chicago, D.C. United, New England and, sometimes, the MetroStars. It is not coincidental that Chicago coach Dave Sarachan was an assistant to Arena at the University of Virginia, D.C. United and with the U.S. national team.
The Revolution's Steve Nicol was groomed in the Liverpool system, which placed a premium on skillful play from every position. The MetroStars were set up to play offensively away from home under Bob Bradley, another former Arena assistant, but did not quite have strong enough personnel to pull it off. Bradley has continued with that style, but more successfully, with Chivas USA.
Arena is back in MLS, and we can assume he will remake the New York Red Bulls in the image of the old D.C. United teams. But Arena will need someone to open the checkbook for him, or else he will be like other MLS coaches who would like to play a more open game but find their hands tied when it comes to significant player acquisitions.
As Arena pointed out during an interview this week at Giants Stadium, the lineup for the final game he coached with D.C. United in 1998 included 10 national team players. Arena's Red Bulls do not have that type of talent.
It will interesting to see what Arena does in the offseason, then. He has apparently received the green light to bring in international players of stature. This is a tricky proposition, but if Arena can find and get the best from the next Marco Etcheverry or Jaime Moreno, it would help breathe new life into MLS.
Arena clearly believes that the future of the U.S. national team depends on MLS, that MLS depends on the development of young players and that MLS must evolve to the point where teams have control over development and are not penalized for being successful. But improvements must be done from the top down, and Arena hopes to set an example with the Red Bulls; he is pushing for a state-of-the-art training facility to accompany a new stadium.
There appears to be some serendipity in the arrival of Dietrich Mateschitz's Red Bull investment and the departure of Arena from the national team.
"For the first time there is light at the end of the tunnel," Arena said. "A business plan is in place and stadiums are being built, there is more visibility for the product with television.
"I said this before, but the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA -- tell me where they were after 11 years. This league is light years ahead of them. It's remarkable how much progress has been made. And now is the time to move forward."
"We need to have an elite youth system, and teams need to be able to maintain the rights to players you develop, so you have the incentive to develop a player.''
And parity is basically for losers.
"I don't think parity is good in a professional league," Arena said. "You need elite teams. The parity issue has to be closely scrutinized because it doesn't make sense, unless you have 12 or 13 good teams. Elite teams have rivalries in other sports -- the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is good, some of the NBA rivalries are good."
Arena and others have offered the same message for many years. Now, he believes, the powers that be are receptive to it.
"You have to voice it the right way and they will listen," Arena said. ''If not, they won't listen. Like in any business, there is a way to do things and a way not to do things.''
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.