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Why parity in MLS makes American soccer so compelling

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Parity leads to a level of competitiveness we don’t see in other leagues.

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MLS: Colorado Rapids at New England Revolution Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

While it’s easy for many to deride Major League Soccer (MLS) as a ‘retirement league’ (although that’s changing) for its lack of a promotion/relegation system or over the talent from top-to-bottom of club rosters, one thing that MLS has over other top world leagues is parity. And parity leads to competitiveness, thanks to drafts, salary caps, and a certain allotment for designated and international spots, among other reasons.

Tutal Rahlman of Pro Soccer USA writes on the level of parity among other major sports in the USA and Europe:

Unsurprisingly, sports leagues in America have a greater level of parity than leagues like La Liga and the English Premier League, which are dominated by a few clubs. The one exception is the NFL. Although the NFL has parity-driven rules like a hard salary cap and deep annual draft, its short seasons allows for very uneven results (name another league where a team can go winless like the Cleveland Browns).

This confirms that MLS is a league with one of the highest levels of parity. Only Major League Baseball – where a win percentage of 57 can claim a division title but 45 percent could put you in last place – is more competitive in any given year.

He discusses an analytic tool called the Gini coefficient which I won’t dare to explain here (go read the article—it’s fascinating). Safe to say, this level of parity helps viewership and club support in a way that other European leagues cannot, and deters new viewers from pulling for a wide range of clubs in their respective leagues.

Digging the ‘Dog

A little personal background. In watching the Premier League, I support Everton. I love their history, the fact that Brian McBride, Landon Donovan, and Tim Howard played for them—and the fact that they aren’t Liverpool—make them a most compelling team to support. And recently, they have finished as high as sixth, qualifying them for the Europa League.

Yet, this year has been tough because of the stark realization that the chances for them to qualify for the Champions League is next to nil. Unless you have the money of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, or even Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, your team is playing for the top spot in the middle of the table. Sure, Leicester City won in 2016 at 5,000-to-1 odds, but the fact that this was so odd brought the point home even stronger.

Another little piece of background of this writer is that he loves the underdog. I don’t pull for the seven-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, I pull for the Cincinnati Bengals. I don’t pull for the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, or the St. Louis Cardinals in Major League Baseball, I pull for the Cincinnati Reds and the Colorado Rockies. I don’t pull for the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, but the Denver Nuggets.

So when watching the Premier League or the Bundesliga or La Liga, if one does not support a Manchester team or Bayern or Barcelona or Real Madrid, the best you can hope for is not a league title, but the odd upset or just to avoid relegation. Mid- and lower-table teams European football become the equivalent of minor league teams that swoop in to buy away talent that these teams cannot afford.

This is why MLS (yes, MLS) is so compelling from week-to-week. Our Colorado Rapids have had an Herculean-sized turnover, from the front office to coaching to players. But with MLS, I knew that at the beginning of the 2018 season, the Rapids need not be written off simply because they weren’t the MLS-equivalent of a Barcelona or Bayern. Yes, MLS has some stacked teams, not the least of which is Toronto FC. Yet, in 2016, the Rapids were down to the seasonal wire in being in the running for the Supporters’ Shield and were one goal away from going to the MLS Cup.

jogo feio

Some of you have read Martin Calladine’s book The Ugly Game. Interestingly enough, he espouses the same concerns (though as a Brit who has followed the game in England since his childhood). What turned him away from the system of the EPL was the National Football League who embraces, you got it, parity.

At first, I started pulling for all things MLS simply because I wanted to support American soccer and see the game thrive both in the stands but also on the world stage. While that motive is still in play, what has slowly changed is the competitiveness of the games and that any result can happen any week. In the EPL, Swansea City beating Manchester City would be an oddity and a cool result for that week, but Swansea will never be a season-long, trophy-taking threat.

In MLS, however, that possibility remains. And it certainly keeps watching quite lively. For instance, the Houston Dynamo hosted Atlanta United in the first week of this regular season. The majority of soccer pundits gave Houston little to no chance. After all, it’s Atlanta! Yet Dynamo manager Wilmer Cabrera exposed the weaknesses of Atlanta’s backline and whipped them 4-0. Then Atlanta turned around and played a talented DC United team to a 3-1 win.

Then there’s the Sporting Kansas City/Chicago Fire match from March 10. SKC jumps out 2-0, then the Fire respond with three goals, then SKC responds with two more goals. Final? 4-3 SKC.

Don’t forget that Los Angeles FC (LAFC) went into Seattle and beat Seattle Sounders FC 1-0 in their inaugural match. (Yes, Clint Dempsey stayed on the bench due to the upcoming Champions League Match against Chivas Guadalajara.) LA then annihilated Real Salt Lake 5-1. An expansion team! Who could have seen that coming? (Well some did, with Bob Bradley and the pieces he brought in, coupled with his experience in taking an MLS expansion team and having success as he did with the 1999 MLS Cup winner Chicago Fire.)

Are More People Actually Going to Games?

Let’s take a look:

  • 2014: 19,095 (with our Colorado Rapids averaging 15,082)
  • 2015: 21,546 (Rapids: 15,657)
  • 2016: 21,692 (Rapids: 16,307)
  • 2017: 22,106 (Rapids: 15,322)

Granted, Atlanta’s record attendance numbers have certainly helped, but so what? More people are attending matches on average, and it’s increasing every year across MLS.

As an aside, if the Rapids moved downtown and began putting a consistent contender on the pitch, there’s no reason why the club could not sniff 20,000 in attendance. Diehard supporters will go wherever the Rapids play, but in order to gain more supporters to at least reach the league average, one has to certainly evaluate matters both on and off the pitch.

The point is clear: MLS and the parity the league embraces is good for the league at this juncture. Let’s see what the future holds!