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Does Defense Win Championships in Major League Soccer?

We know the cliché, but does it hold true over MLS's 20-year history? The short answer is yes.

Von Miller and his Denver Broncos defense won a championship in the NFL, but does that principle apply in MLS?
Von Miller and his Denver Broncos defense won a championship in the NFL, but does that principle apply in MLS?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If you've spent even a half hour of your life watching ESPN's NFL coverage, there's a decent chance that you've seen a talking head with a Windsor knot and matching pocket square regurgitate the phrase, "In the National Football League, defense wins championships." It's oft-repeated because it is in fact true. 10 of the last 12 teams to reach the Super Bowl with the league's best defense won the Lombardi Trophy, which includes two of the last three champions.

Sunday's edition of America's favorite unofficial holiday was a defensive bloodbath. The winning Denver Broncos had the fewest offensive yards gained of any winning team ever, and the game itself, while a close one with a relatively exciting finish, was the football equivalent of watching two soccer teams pass the ball back-and-forth to one another with the deciding goal coming from the losing team turning the ball over in its own defensive third leading directly to an easy finish. Not exactly the most scintillating, thrilling, inspiring game we'd all dream of watching in those high-pressure, championship circumstances.

But does the same mold hold true in Major League Soccer? Here's a list of every MLS Cup champion and where they ranked in the league in terms of goals allowed during their championship seasons.

Year Champion Goals Against Rank
1996 D.C. United T-6th
1997 D.C. United T-6th
1998 Chicago Fire 2nd
1999 D.C. United 6th
2000 Kansas City Wizards 1st
2001 San Jose Earthquakes 1st
2002 LA Galaxy 1st
2003 San Jose Earthquakes T-1st
2004 D.C. United 6th
2005 LA Galaxy T-7th
2006 Houston Dynamo 4th
2007 Houston Dynamo 1st
2008 Columbus Crew 3rd
2009 Real Salt Lake 7th
2010 Colorado Rapids 5th
2011 LA Galaxy 1st
2012 LA Galaxy T-13th
2013 Sporting Kansas City 1st
2014 LA Galaxy T-1st
2015 Portland Timbers T-3rd

In fact, the cliché may be more true in MLS than the NFL. While only 10 of the 50 Super Bowl champions had the league's best defense, eight of the 20 MLS Cup champions allowed the fewest goals that season. If you're looking for a more apples-to-apples comparison, just 14 of the 50 Super Bowl champions allowed the fewest points in the NFL during their championship years. Further, only one MLS champion ranked outside of the top-10 in goals allowed (LA in 2012) and 13 ranked in the top-five.

In soccering terms, the argument of pragmatism versus idealism is constant. Should a team play aggressive, inventive soccer going forward? Or should it be organized in the back and grind its way to victory? Can it do both, and what is the most efficient and effective way to do so? Regardless your answer to any of those questions it would seem, in MLS at least, that no matter how superb a team is in attack, it will only go as far as its defense will take it.

So if you see dapper looking Taylor Twellman, complete with a Windsor knot and matching pocket square, say, "In Major League Soccer, defense wins championships" anytime soon, it's not just him espousing some ESPN catch-phrase. He'll be speaking the truth.