In recent weeks and months, there’s been some discussion on two of the sources for soccer news I check routinely — Clever Football and the World Soccer Daily podcast — about the tiers of leagues in Europe and where MLS would fit in.
Personally, I think that particular debate shouldn’t even be had; it’s like comparing apples to oranges.
MLS, of course, has a salary cap in place, plays a different schedule than most of the European leagues, and is based in a country where its teams are in cities that aren’t really in close geographic proximity. This affects travel time and style of travel, two factors that don’t play any role whatsoever in Europe. The style of play, too, is different; MLS is a highly Latin-influenced league that plays at a slower, more possession-oriented tempo. Playing games in the middle of summer and dealing with the oppressive heat that can be found in many MLS cities is another contributing reason to the tempo, and again, that doesn’t happen to as large of a degree in Europe.
If all things and variables were equal, which they aren’t and likely won’t ever be, I’d say that the best MLS teams (New England, Houston, DC United, and Chivas USA) would battle to stay out of the relegation zone in the Premiership, fight for a playoff spot in the Championship, and contend for a UEFA Cup spot in the SPL. The worst teams (Toronto FC, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy) would struggle to stay afloat in the Championship, and maybe finish mid-table in League One. I am by no means an expert on MLS and to be honest, don’t pay too much attention to the league until closer to the playoffs, so those are just broad, perhaps slightly misinformed opinions of comparing MLS teams to teams in Britain. Again, all things would be equal in those scenarios.
However, we can have a valid, legitimate discussion about the tiers of leagues in Europe. The prevailing notion is that three leagues — the Premiership, Serie A, and La Liga — are by themselves at the top end. Doesn’t really take a genius to come up with that.
After “Tier 1”, though, things start to get interesting. There are 49 different top domestic leagues recognized by UEFA outside of the three already mentioned, some of them more established than others.
In coming up with the groups that you’ll see in a minute, I considered a couple of things:
1. What is the OVERALL STRENGTH of the league? Yes, Rangers and Celtic are solid teams and are capable of making a run in the UEFA Cup and/or Champions League every year. Aside from them, though, the Scottish Premier League really is not much to brag about and I’d go as far as to say that it’s a weak league. I want to see leagues that are realistically at least four or five teams deep.
2. How successful are the league’s top teams in Europe? I know what I just said about leagues having more than just one or two good teams. If that’s the case, though, I want to see those teams progress far in Europe. I want to see relatively lower-level leagues still able to send their champion or runner-up (or third place, however many teams a league gets into Europe) and have those teams do something against their peers on the continent. The French league (Ligue 1) is fine, but it seems like teams like Lyon, Marseille, Lille, and others get bounced out of European competition early every year. How can I take a league seriously if the best they have to offer doesn’t stack up against teams of generally equal reputation and stature?
So, here’s the rough grouping system of top-flight domestic leagues I came up with, by country. The order in which the country are listed isn’t important; that is, I’m not saying that the Premiership is a better league than La Liga, or that La Liga is better than Serie A.
Tier 1: England, Spain, Italy
Tier 2: Germany, Holland, Portugal, France
Tier 3: Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Scotland, Norway, Belgium
Tier 4: Croatia, Serbia, Greece, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Israel
Tier 5: Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Wales, Romania, Bulgaria, Denmark
Tier 6: Hungary, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Belarus, Poland
Tier 7: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herezgovina, Cyprus, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, FYR of Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, San Marino, Liechtenstein
Feel free to disagree..I’m sure you will.