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MLS: Can Small-Market Teams Translate Regular-Season Form into an MLS Cup?

Peter Galindo@@GalindoPWFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2015

Aug 8, 2015; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; D.C. United forward Chris Rolfe (18) celebrates his goal against Montreal Impact with teammates during the first half at Stade Saputo. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports
Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Soccer never fails to dramatically entertain fans due to the parity across the league. This allows small-market teams to compete with the big spenders in MLS.

However, these smaller sides may face stiff competition from the reloaded LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders once the playoffs begin.

On the other hand, neither LA nor Seattle is on top of the Supporters' Shield standings. That honor belongs to D.C. United.

D.C. has played more games than any other side in the Eastern Conference, but it still deserves its success.

United has topped the league thanks to its balanced attack and stingy defending. Chris Rolfe has a team-leading nine goals. Fourteen players have scored at least once.

D.C.'s 29 goals conceded is the fifth-lowest amount in MLS. Considering it has played more matches than the other teams ranked below United in this category, that's an impressive feat.

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid has been key to the defensive accomplishments. Hamid was developed in the team's academy and has been compared to current U.S. men's national team stalwart Tim Howard. He’s also drawn interest from European clubs in the past.

Center back Steve Birnbaum and full-backs Taylor Kemp and Chris Korb were chosen in previous SuperDrafts. Midfielders Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon were also selected.

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The entire D.C. squad earns about $4.3 million in annual salary. Nine individual players earn more money by themselves.

D.C. United's entire squad earns less than the likes of Kaka, Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley.
D.C. United's entire squad earns less than the likes of Kaka, Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley.Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting Kansas City is also thriving without any big games. U.S. international center back Matt Besler is a former first-round pick. Amadou Dia and Saad Abdul-Salaam were also selected at the SuperDraft.

Fellow defender Kevin Ellis was signed to a homegrown player contract. Current No. 1 goalkeeper Tim Melia had played just six MLS games prior to the 2015 campaign. He's started 14 games this year alone and has conceded just 13 goals.

Benny Feilhaber was traded to Sporting from the New England Revolution. He now leads the league in assists and has won an MLS Cup.

Honduras international midfielder Roger Espinoza was drafted by SKC, as was forward Dom Dwyer, who scored 22 goals last season.

Journeyman forward and Hungary international Krisztian Nemeth has also turned heads. The winger has a respectable eight goals and five assists in 19 appearances in 2015. He's still just 26 years old.

In total, SKC is paying its players about $5.6 million a year.

The Vancouver Whitecaps have built their squad through astute signings in Central and South America. Ten players hail from Costa Rica, Honduras, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.

Franco Panizo @FrancoPanizo

Honestly believe if MLS is to become "top league" it needs to become destination for the Americas. Only so many Euros you can get in primes.

Arguably the most important player for the Whitecaps is Argentinean midfielder Matias Laba. The 23-year-old was acquired from Toronto FC for a "fee," per Michael McColl on the official MLS website.

Laba is now MLS' leading tackler with 5.2 per game, via WhoScored.com. The ex-Argentina U20 international would be able to help a TFC team that has conceded 41 goals this season.

Pedro Morales, MLS' Newcomer of the Year in 2014, was bought from Malaga prior to last season. He has scored 15 goals and recorded 16 assists since last season.

Vancouver's Costa Rican center back Kendall Waston is equally important. The 27-year-old is a physical, commanding defender who is strong in the air and reads the game incredibly well.

Veterans such as Pa-Modou Kah, Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey are also key contributors on the back line. Draft picks like Tim Parker and Christian Dean have also impressed on defense. 

The Whitecaps also put extra emphasis on youth. Head coach Carl Robinson has given valuable minutes to midfielder Russell Teibert and full-back Sam Adekugbe.

ESPN Mexico, via the official MLS website, claims that Vancouver is the youngest MLS team with an average squad age of 24.3 years.

The Whitecaps are spending just above $6 million on annual salaries. It's slightly above Sporting KC's number, but it's significantly lower than TFC ($22.7 million) and the Galaxy ($19.4 million).

FC Dallas is also succeeding with a blend of youth and experience on its roster.

Fabian Castillo is one of the most dangerous forwards in MLS at just 23 years old. His blistering speed and scoring touch make him a threat in every game. The Colombian already has eight goals and six assists.

Victor Ulloa is one of many bright homegrown talents in Dallas' squad. The 23-year-old has made 52 appearances since the 2014 season. He's a well-rounded midfielder who can defend and transition the play forward for counterattacks.

Argentinean playmaker Mauro Diaz has struggled with injuries, but now that he's healthy, he's thriving. The 24-year-old has five goals and six assists in 18 appearances, which is a career high for him.

Antö @rossoAnto

Partly why I've latched onto Dallas to an extent ... why not risk it on younger, less proven guys, not like there's relegation @Calciocast

Like Vancouver, Dallas relied on its academy, the SuperDraft and Latin America for its key contributors. The Hoops' annual salary of around $4 million is the second-lowest amount in MLS.

Other teams like the Columbus Crew ($4.9 million) and New England Revolution ($6.5 million) are making noise in the Eastern Conference. Those sides are third and fourth place, respectively.

Once the playoffs begin, it will be a clean slate. Seattle is unlikely to lose eight out of nine games again. However, both Vancouver and Sporting have beaten the Sounders this season.

The Whitecaps are still the only team to have gone into the StubHub Center and win against LA. Vancouver has the best road record in MLS with seven wins, two draws and five losses. No one else in the league has more than four victories away from home.

Ⓢⓣⓔⓥⓔ Ⓕⓔⓝⓝ @StatHunting

SKC still tops MLS PPG table despite yest's debacle, but Shield race is close. Expansion clubs' playoff hopes fading. http://t.co/XWNN7ISxsa

Regardless, LA has to be the favorite. Not only are the Galaxy the defending champions, they have a plethora of scoring threats. Giovani dos Santos is gaining chemistry by the day with his new Galaxy teammates. Reigning MVP Robbie Keane has scored 11 goals in his last eight games. 

The Sounders and TFC will be threats with their clinical attackers. However, they're two of the biggest spenders in MLS. If they don't attain some form of success this season, it will be a disappointment.

New York City FC missing the playoffs would be a huge disappointment with its investment of nearly $18 million a year in player wages.

It's not necessary to acquire big-name stars in order to win titles. Even the New York Red Bulls have shifted from this method. They now spend the fewest amount in yearly salary out of any MLS team.

The Galaxy may have won three of the last four MLS Cups, but SKC triumphed in 2013 over another small market in Real Salt Lake. RSL was the champion in 2009 and Columbus won it all the year before in 2008.

The defensive organization, fast-paced attacks and insightful coaches make D.C., Vancouver, SKC and Dallas four viable MLS Cup contenders.

Any of these sides can achieve success, but they'll have to get by the intelligent Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena first.

Unless otherwise noted, all team and player salaries via ESPN FC and the MLS Players Union.

Peter Galindo covers MLS and U.S. soccer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @GalindoPW.

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