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Early Results Do Not Tell the Tale in MLS

A look into the league's history shows that it will take more than a hot start for the Crew to be there in the end.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

They phrase, "it's a long season," is frequently dropped in Major League Soccer circles and it is not in order to point out the league's regular season runs from early March until the end of October. Instead it points to the intense grind that each year brings.

Throughout the course of a long year, every team is going to have ups and downs - save for D.C. United of 2013 who really only had downs. The Columbus Crew are off to their best start in team history, yet there is a sense that fans should temper the early expectations.

A 3-1-1 start has the Crew sitting atop the Eastern Conference after five games, but it is not time to anoint the team just yet. Their lone loss came in embarrassing fashion, at home to a depleted Toronto FC. The Reds - who were beaten 3-0 by Real Salt Lake the week before - shutout the Black and Gold 2-0, despite missing four starters.

Two of their three wins have come in somewhat unconvincing fashion. The 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Union saw Columbus hang on to a 2-0 halftime lead, despite being outshot by 10. Against the Seattle Sounders a penalty kick and a red card allowed the Black and Gold to draw level before a dramatic winner had sent the Crew into a tizzy.

The team is still waiting to play their best game and do so for 90 minutes.

This is not to say this team does not deserve to be where they are. Gregg Berhalter has brought an attractive style of soccer to Columbus and the players have bought in. The team is relevant in the league again and that's a big step in the right direction.

Following the Toronto loss, Berhalter called the season a process. In that case, the process has just begun. Five games in, some may need reminding, it's a long season.

A solid start does not always end in glory and looking back over the last eight seasons proves this fact.

In examining the teams to make MLS Cup over that period, it is evident that a hot start is not necessary to reach the championship game. Only five of the 16 teams to play in these MLS Cup Finals won more than two of their opening five matches and three won one or fewer.

The hottest team to begin last season, FC Dallas, won six of their first nine games over the first two months, but only won six more games the remainder of the year and missed the playoffs by seven points.

Although the Supporter's Shield provides a more accurate assessment of the league's best team, early season results do not always indicate success there either. Contrary to Dallas, the 2013 New York Red Bulls won just twice by mid-April, yet finished atop the league standings.

This is not to say early season results can't help win the Shield. In 2012, the San Jose Earthquakes started the season 4-1 and it wasn't until May 5 that they lost their second game and won the Supporter's Shield by three points.

There is no way to make recent results project future success and as Berhalter put it, the MLS campaign is a process. The Crew have put themselves ahead of the curve this year with the good start, but it takes consistency and continued to development throughout the year in order to achieve success in Major League Soccer.

This is what the Crew are striving for.