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Does parity dilute the quality of play in MLS?

A BW staff follow-up to an article from earlier this week.

2010 MLS Cup - FC Dallas v Colorado Rapids Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images

After From the South Stands’ article on why parity in MLS makes American soccer so compelling started gaining traction on reddit, it became clear that there was one main argument against his point: parity = lower quality. The premise is that while yes, MLS has parity and any team could win on any given day, the overall product on the field and quality of play is lower than in other leagues around the world.

So we decided to tackle this topic as a staff and answer the question: Does parity dilute the quality of play in MLS?

From the South Stands

The idea behind this is to spread out the talent across the board so that each team has the necessary TAM, GAM, DP spots, along with a salary cap in order to bring in quality players from the US and around the world.

Now, let’s get something out in the open: when we talk about parity and competitiveness, that doesn’t address talent. MLS is in its 23rd year and is improving talent-wise. But since the talent level doesn’t equate to that of the EPL or the Bundesliga, this gives folks a chance to tee off on MLS by bemoaning its lack of quality and the lack of promotion/relegation or [fill in the blank].

Does parity dilute the quality of MLS? If by that question one is asking, “Does this dilute the possibility of having superclubs that could compete on a world stage?” Sure. But within the capsule of MLS itself, looking at MLS in a vacuum, does this mean that each team is able to increase the quality of its roster? Sure!

At this point, in order for MLS and soccer in America to gain ground, parity has to be in place, but it won’t be sustainable long-term. (I’ve written about this in the past, how the Rapids would benefit from a pro-rel system.) So, MLS won’t have superclubs with parity like this, but within MLS, each club will have a better chance to compete in the league they occupy.

Jason Maxwell

Yes, but I don’t care. Without the parity rules you could put together 2-3 superteams (say NYRB, TFC, and the Galaxy) who would play a much higher quality game, but at the expense of the rest of the league. If you want any MLS team to stand up and go punch-for-punch with Club America or some of the smaller “big” European teams, that’s how you would do it. Remove the shackles, let the rich spend, and have a great couple of MLS teams to represent the league.

The rest of us, Rapids fans included, would be downplaying for 4th place and a hope for a decent playoff run, maybe a Cup run. (Something that should sound familiar to the likes of Everton, Sevilla, and Dortmund fans.) It then becomes a rich get richer scenario as those top teams get more endorsements, more prize money, and more ticket sales, allowing them to spend even more and putting the rest of the league even further behind.

It’s better to have a league of relatively equal quality and wide-open competition than one of the uber-teams and nothing to play for from the starting gun.

Kellen Abreu

I grew up a fan of the Sacramento Kings in the NBA where there is a certain level of league enforced parity (with the salary cap, luxury tax, the draft etc.). If you look at the NBA since 2000, there have been eight different champions. Yes, there are superteams and dynasties and all that but by and large, that is a league that most would say has a history of parity (despite the fact the Warriors and Cavaliers have dominated the finals for several years).

When we look at MLS from 2000 to present there have been 11 different MLS cup winners. From the small markets (like our very own Colorado Rapids) to teams that seem a bit more like a dynasty (like the L.A. Galaxy under Bruce Arena) this league is built on giving every team a chance. The Rapids in 2015 and 2017 might have been a struggle to watch, but a surprise like 2016 can happen. How often can we say that happens in other leagues?

Any given weekend we are able to witness an upset, and yes, that’s true in any league or any competition. The problem with the major European leagues is that over the course of a full season the teams that spend the most will generally win out. That doesn’t make those leagues bad or anything like that but when you know in La Liga that Barcelona and Real Madrid are going to be the top two teams in the league every season, what are you watching for as a fan of a lesser team (other than love of the game)? I guess it comes down to why we as sports fans watch the game.

Abbie Mood

Probably, but in some ways that makes it more exciting. Don’t get me wrong—I love watching the top teams in La Liga and the Bundesliga play, but how competitive are those leagues really when it’s the same clubs winning year after year? Of course you’re going to see high quality of play and world-class players when you’re watching Real Madrid or Barcelona, but what about everyone else? As Kellen mentioned, there are upsets in every league, but chances are pretty low that Real Madrid is going to lose to Las Palmas.

Meanwhile, DC United (who finished a point below Colorado in the standings last year) beat MLS powerhouse Atlanta United, drew Toronto, and scored three goals in Seattle last year (ultimately losing 4-3, but Seattle only allowed 39 goals last year, which was good enough for 3rd lowest in MLS).

My point is that even if parity dilutes the overall quality of play, the majority of MLS teams are more evenly matched on any given day, no matter what it looks like on paper. That being said, there are at least two other factors in MLS that can’t be ignored: mainly, the impact of home-field advantage, but also how much your owner is willing to open their wallets. If we see more big money signings like Ezequiel Barco by Atlanta, parity is going to go out the window. If other owners continue to spend more conservatively, MLS will continue to grow, just at a slower pace. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.