Sports in the District of Columbia are known for their turnaround teams, with the Wizards and the Nationals gradually evolving from mediocrity into their current status as playoff contenders. However, even for D.C. teams, it is extremely rare for a team to go from absolute worst in the league to best in the conference in just one season.

After an abysmal 2013 season, in which D.C. United finished with just 16 points from three wins, seven draws and a whopping 24 losses, the 2014 Major League Soccer season has showcased a team playing with an entirely different mentality.

With fewer than eight games remaining, D.C. United is in first place in the Eastern Conference with 47 points, five points ahead of the 2013 MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City. Not only is it first in the East, it is third in the entire MLS, behind the Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy.

A turnaround story like D.C. United’s doesn’t happen without a huge roster overhaul, as new forwards Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson, and midfielders Chris Rolfe and Davy Arnaud have helped jumpstart the Red and Black’s previously lackluster attack.

The financial structure of the MLS also helps teams quickly turn around and improve their level of play. In the top European leagues, the Spanish, German, Italian and French teams that finish in the bottom three in the standings get relegated to the second division., In the MLS, the teams who finish at the bottom of their conferences simply miss the playoffs, but are not relegated. In fact, they may receive allocation money, which they can use to acquire players from other teams or overseas in the offseason.

The added funds help teams acquire impact players and bolster parity in the MLS, keeping nearly every game and team competitive throughout the 34-game season. To add an additional level of parity to the MLS that other leagues do not have, the roster rules and regulations include a $3.1 million salary cap for the first 20 out of 30 players on the team. This salary cap allows more balanced teams and less star power concentrated on one team, which contrasts with the German and Spanish leagues, where traditionally the top two and three teams, respectively, are the only ones with the funds to regularly challenge for the title.

In both European leagues, the best teams’ annual salary budgets soar well over 100 million pounds – over $120 million. Players like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Real Madrid’s duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale and Barcelona’s new attack partners Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, among others, are each paid hundreds of thousands per week and success often relies on how much money teams can bid on players during transfer windows.

European Leagues can stand to learn a thing or two from the quick turnaround of D.C. United within the MLS’ small-budget, parity-filled league.

Smaller clubs in top European leagues, like EPL side West Ham United, barring miracles, aren’t contenders due to limited payrolls. In fact, in Europe, where there is no playoff system, the goal for most mid-table clubs is simply to not be relegated to a lower league. Staying in the top division and keeping the lucrative television and jersey marketing revenues that only come with top-flight status, is what makes a season successful.

The MLS, on the other hand, cultivates a competitive soccer environment, where essentially any team can win against any other, and the championship is out of reach for no one. I’m not saying that it’s easy to reverse a downslide like D.C. United has, for what it’s done this season may end up being the greatest turnaround in MLS history. The team has played tremendously, dominating the East with a lightning attack while allowing the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference.

With veteran leadership from midfielder Davy Arnaud and defender Bobby Boswell, fused with the young core of goalkeeper Bill Hamid, and midfielders Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon, D.C. United are poised to make a run for the MLS Cup title, which they last held in 2004.

With the momentum of an incredible turnaround and a squad built for success through synergy and team play, the future is bright for D.C. United and its reinvigorated fan base. Perhaps fans of perennially struggling teams in top European leagues should take note.

Paolo Santamaria is a freshman in the College. Saxa Synergy appears every other Friday.

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