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How parity in MLS grows the game, but develops limitations

parity in soccer

Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016 is the most glaring instance of parity in soccer providing greatness.

At 5000-1 odds, every soccer fan had a soft spot for the Foxes, with the exception of title-challengers Tottenham. The achievement rekindled the idea that any team can win any competition. After all, Leicester looked doom for relegation the season prior.

The same persists regarding the debacle of the European Super League. The world of soccer rose up against 12 clubs putting themselves on an elitist pedestal, which would destroy the potential for the teams just on the cusp of continuous success.

Despite these examples, soccer has a knack for domination from a handful of teams. England has a ‘big six’, Bayern Munich and Juventus won each of its domestic leagues from 2012/13 to 2019/20. The last LaLiga champion not called Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid of Barcelona was Valencia all the way back in the 2003/04 season.

Despite the dominance, we still love the game. Perhaps that is because of the different rewards for placement. Champions League or Europa League qualification are well in the range for teams. Even though the same crop of teams tend to win European competitions, underdog teams like Ajax in 2018/19 or Roma the season prior provide scintillating storylines.

But, what about Major League Soccer? Competitions like the CONCACAF Champions League or the Leagues Cup provide incentive for some of those on-the-cusp teams, but parity in soccer is the standard. It fits the mold of American sports pumping out different champions and finalists each season, to a certain extent.

MLS remains proud of its different success stories. Here is why that is a good thing to tout, but it could also be beneficial to have a strong team that consistently reaches the mountaintop.

Parity in soccer and growth

For this, Major League Soccer serves as the example. For one, the MLS Cup Final takes place on Saturday. New York City FC, playing in its first MLS Cup Final takes on the Portland Timbers, which played in two finals in its history.

Recently, MLS released a statistic showing that MLS leads parity statistics regarding championship appearances. With the nature of postseason tournaments not necessarily existing in European or South American soccer, it is hard to make that comparison.

However, the league demonstrated its parity since its inception. MLS showed that, despite its youth compared to MLB, the NFL, the NHL and the NBA, the league sent the highest percentage of teams to the conference finals in its history. Essentially, the Philadelphia Union and NYCFC marked the 18th and 19th teams to reach the final four. Now, over 70 percent of MLS teams can say it played in a conference final.

Total Teams in LeagueDifferent Teams to Appear in Conference FinalsPercentage of Teams to Reach Conference FinalsDifferent Champions in the last DecadePercentage of Teams to win a Championship in the last decade
The pros of parity and growth

Fans love success, you could argue it is why we support certain teams.

Major League Soccer remains a young league in terms of both soccer leagues and professional American sports leagues. Therefore, it is paramount for the expansion teams to set up a proper, consistent fanbase in their catchment areas. What better way to do that than through immediate results.

Take a club like Atlanta United. Due to the inherent parity of expansion drafts taking players from other teams and granting them to new teams, Atlanta United developed early success on the field. Off of it, Atlanta became the most-popular team in the league based on attendance. Despite playing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United garnered a stadium attendance of 119 percent capacity. Of course, some seats were closed, and people filled in. However, there is a reason Atlanta consistently tops the attendance charts.

Parity comes in to play regarding that early success. As stated previously, MLS proudly recognizes the success of a variety of teams as opposed to a handful of the same teams playing in finals. Stadium attendance and results go hand-in-hand. Look at clubs like that fared worse over recent years. The Columbus Crew, FC Dallas and Chicago Fire lacked results on the field building up to 2018. Those three clubs consistently ranked poorly.

Columbus Crew saw a steady rise during and leading up to its first MLS Cup triumph in 2020.

The cons

Parity seems great to grow the game organically. Give each team an equitable chance to grow from the ground up.

Yet, this could be seen as only fitting for individual fan bases. This is something that MLS wants to tackle, but the league’s ambitions extend beyond that.

For leagues outside of the U.S., where soccer is the established dominant force in the sporting world, allegiances are, more often than not, set in stone. That is all with a grain of salt, however. The depth and breadth of soccer systems in Europe and South America allow for people to support their local team that may compete in the third or fourth tier while still supporting a bigger club also in the area.

So, for international fans, parity could actually hurt soccer leagues. The most recent Ligue 1 title went to Lille. For underdog fans, its a great story. Lille unseated a PSG squad that won seven of the last eight Ligue 1 crowns. However, does this truly get more people to watch the league?

In European soccer, eyes often go to the best possible team in a league. After all, the end-goal for the majority of the major clubs is success in the Champions League. Undoubtedly, PSG pulls in more eyes for the league holistically.

Of course, a counterargument to that point is that PSG losing forced the club to go out and deliver one of the best transfer windows in recent memory by acquiring Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi and other stars. These players may reduce the parity in the league with PSG already dominating domestically, but more people may tune in to watch the star-studded lineup.

For instance, Messi’s PSG debut pulled in an absurd number of viewers compared to normal Ligue 1 viewership. Almost 20 million unique viewers watched the former-Barcelona captain play for 25 minutes against Reims.

Playoffs versus League Play

As stated previously, MLS proudly discusses its parity regarding conference final and MLS Cup Final appearances.

As many know, MLS uses a playoff system to determine a champion, a key difference compared to the league-based crowns awarded in Europe and South America.

The tournament-style playoffs that exist throughout American sports are exciting. Any team that qualifies, which is generally around half the teams in the league, has a legitimate shot at a title.

Parity in soccer can be exciting, sure. However, there are inherent consequences to the format used to prop up that parity that may go against long-term success.

The Beauty of Playoffs

If anything, the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs showed how great parity in soccer can be. Real Salt Lake stunned the western conference to squeak into the playoffs. A monumental defensive effort yielded a penalty shootout win before a 90th-minute winner sent RSL to its first semifinals appearance since 2013. On the other hand, NYCFC, which only joined the league in 2015, will appear in its first MLS Cup Final on December 11.

The two top seeds in MLS lost in dramatic games in their first playoff games of the season. Moreover, the New England Revolution put together the greatest regular season in MLS history. However, the aforementioned NYCFC went to Gillette Stadium and knocked out the winners of the Supporters’ Shield.

It is unpredictable, and that is what makes it fun. Playoffs provides more opportunity for a league that has more teams than the majority of soccer leagues. The same can be said about the other American sports. Storylines, heroes and drama develop throughout each game of the playoffs, making it can’t-miss action.

Unrewarding seasons

The coin is always two-sided, however. The New England Revolution put up a historic season of success over the season. Most wins and highest points earned per game in the history of the league. All Bruce Arena and the Revolution have to show for it is the Supporters’ Shield and a birth into the CONCACAF Champions League.

It shows a great season, but the end-goal in MLS differs from other soccer leagues. Essentially, the parity via playoffs in MLS allows for teams to ‘breeze’ through the regular season, putting everything earned from the 34-game season at risk.

MLS Cup Final, 2011 in Los Angeles

For example, MLS prioritizing parity via playoffs prevented the No. 1 seed from reaching the MLS Cup Final, again. Only two teams that finished at the top of their respective conference at the end of the regular season qualified for MLS’s championship match. Both those teams, Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011 and Toronto FC in 2017, won MLS Cup that season.

Any team can get on a hot run of form. In 2012, just one season after finishing as the best team in the western conference, LA Galaxy finished as the fourth-best team in the west, and the eighth-best team overall. In England, that does not even get a spot in the UEFA Europa Conference League. The Galaxy got hot when it mattered, eventually defeating the fifth-best team in the east, the Houston Dynamo.

This is what makes Leicester City’s achievement in the 2015/16 season so remarkable. Yes, a run of good form against lower opposition propped up the Foxes. However, a Premier League title at 5,000-1 odds shows consistency, and a deserved trophy lifted by manager Claudio Ranieri at the King Power Stadium.

MLS moving forward

In this press release that MLS relayed its parity in soccer, the league drew comparisons to the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB. The primary soccer league in the United States is in an interesting position. Does the league compare itself to its American counterparts? Or, should MLS start to take on the likes of Liga MX, the Premier League and other popular foreign leagues?

The fans in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities often feel more aligned to the other sports teams in their city than they do to European leagues.

On the other hand, it would be easier for MLS to compare its production to European, South American, Asian or even Mexican soccer leagues. Obviously, there are speed bumps, including structure of seasons and size of the league. Regardless, if MLS wants to compete with other leagues, it could always take some pointers from those leagues.

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  1. LF

    April 17, 2022 at 4:32 am

    I love the salary cap, but I hate playoffs. Because of playoffs, MLS “regular season” games, outside of the rivalry games, are generally boring. I would purchase season tickets immediately if MLS adopted a standard single table, pro-rel format involving only MLS teams, without playoffs.

  2. NaBUru38

    December 17, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    The more true stars the MLS hires, the more fans they will draw around the world, and the more money they will earn from TV rights.

    But the owners are happy with the status quo.

  3. Yespage

    December 14, 2021 at 1:52 pm

    Parity is necessary because they simply don’t have the money to compete globally. How is attendance for smaller teams if they get beat up all the time, and there is no benefit to being in the “top flight” to keep interest? And the US’s biggest problem is Continental Football glory. No Champions League in CONCACAF that really counts. Even if someone opens the wallet, there is little to play for in the US if one is from Europe, Africa, Asia, or South America. The MLS lacks importance and a sense of history. And nothing fixes that, except a $5 to 10 billion investment from owners in the league to create a payroll of really good players. But they won’t see that money back, as again, North America lacks the big bucks overall in soccer for cup payouts.

    A League Cup would be interesting, but ultimately, the MLS suffers from being about soccer and so much potential domestic talent is being pilfered by football, baseball, basketball, and to a smaller extent hockey.

  4. Mercator

    December 14, 2021 at 11:15 am

    I like that this was put out as a podcast. Videos are great but having it pop up on the podcast app is convenient, easily noticeable and there are a lot of situations where I just can’t watch a video or access the internet (driving, flights, etc.) so podcasts get a monopoly on my attention.

    Kartik is right, it’s ridiculous to have 14 of the 27 teams in a playoff. There shouldn’t be more than 8 teams, and this permits home/away playoff ties. Without a somewhat balanced schedule though, it’s difficult to take the table too seriously – a lot of it can come down to playing a stronger or weaker schedule. Once they get to 30 teams they could do 6 divisions, play your division twice and every other club once. Take the six division winners and then the two highest seeds in the table for the playoffs.

    I don’t mind the randomness from year to year at all – I think this is the inevitable result of a league with parity that also is, or aspires to be, a selling league. As a result, some of the best players will leave for better leagues every year, something the NFL, NBA, etc. don’t have to deal with. This still leaves room for a Cinderella story – it would surprise me greatly if the Dynamo made a turnaround and won the shield/cup next year.

    But, I don’t think the MLS promotes it’s system enough. The budget rules are quite complex and often its not clear how teams are budgeting certain players or where they are w/r/t the cap. MLS should make all of this public and include a calculator on their site so that fans can play with the roster a bid – what happens if we sell X, how much space does that open up, what happens if we reclassify Y, etc. I think this would go a long way to build engagement with more dedicated fans.

  5. JP

    December 14, 2021 at 10:31 am

    @locofooty, a concurrent MLS “Champions League” is also something I want to see. Breakup the league into geographical regions where the calendar for each can be slightly tweaked for optimal conditions in each region/division. Top teams in each region qualify for the champions league next season. Can add lower division clubs in each region as necessary to get to 15-20 clubs….maybe pro/rel possible…

  6. locofooty

    December 14, 2021 at 10:27 am

    The US Open Cup includes teams from other divisions. Would be interesting to see a knockout cup only for MLS that runs along the regular season. You have your cup champions and your national champions. Maybe then you can have a Super Cup lol. Would be a big change for US sports system, but closer to how world football is. There has to be more recognition for the team that finishes 1st and breaks records during the regular season.

  7. Roberto

    December 14, 2021 at 9:49 am

    @Locofooty: They had the Lamar Hunt cup that included the USL but suspended it with the Covid closures. I like that better then the league’s cup but it did not get the TV viewers interested. The league’s cup will necessitate changes since it will make the season longer. What I said under another comment was have two seasons, before and after the Cup run. End up with maybe four or eight teams with two legs and then the final. Like Kartik suggested, maybe four divisions. There will have to be changes, this year’s playoffs were a disaster!

  8. locofooty

    December 14, 2021 at 9:36 am

    Going back to 2 legs after the first round would help. The better team should come out of the tie with 180+ mins of play as opposed to only 90+. When/if they reach 32 teams, they probably will looking at the landscape…any chance they start looking at a knockout cup competition to ease the thirst of those that like the playoff system and have a more normal regular season parallel as well?

  9. greg

    December 12, 2021 at 2:31 pm

    The point about predictable winners in Ligue 1 and Bundesliga are valid, Lille’s win last year notwithstanding. Serie A looks to finally be in a bit of a title shuffle again. La Liga has at least had the title ping between the Madrid clubs & Barca, though you have to wonder if Real might go on a bit of a title run given their strength relative to others when they get Mbappe.

    The parity, as others have noted, comes in the UCL places. And to a lesser extent the Europa Cup. Plenty of teams in that 4-8 range are starting to base their budgets on even the relatively minor payout from a Europa place, Leicester among them. It’s much more modest than UCL yes, but it’s a decent percentage of their lower overall budgets.

    In that way, the competition for the UCL, UEFA & now Conference League spots becomes like MLS playoffs. Lots of teams get something, but the top clubs tend to take home the biggest honors. And the spots in UCL 2-4 and Europa leagues are a bit more volatile than the league winners.

  10. Brett

    December 12, 2021 at 1:32 pm

    @CB4, I believe you think to highly of the US. Plenty of areas around the world that are better to live then the US. Currently in the last six years the US has seen a noticeable drop in approval from around outside the country. I also like that there is a salary cap because it keeps it competitive. With no salary cap some teams will just not try to win because they will feel priced out of the market and we would see perennial losers, with little to no motivation to win.

    @Roberto, I agree completely. Currently I enjoy the MLS and the was it is made up. My biggest beef with the league is that there is no balanced schedule so the Supporters shield has less value. I feel credit should mainly be for winning your conference since there cannot be a balanced schedule.

  11. jstrummer

    December 12, 2021 at 1:28 pm

    Understand there’s plenty to play for but it’s a long grind just to see what teams qualify for Europe and in many cases I couldn’t care less (watching Barce and Juve struggle for those spots may be of interest but do I really care if Leverkusen or Sociedad make the CL?). I do enjoy pro/rel and I tend to follow leagues in the late season that have interesting races at the bottom. As for MLS I enjoy the late season as teams fighting for playoff spots generates a lot of critical matches, and yes the crowds are quite intense and seem to have no issue with the product on the field as the matches are usually quite entertaining.

  12. Roberto

    December 12, 2021 at 11:01 am

    @Leo, there are plenty of good MLS games and all teams try to win, all the time. I have seem some crap EPL games and the same goes for all leagues.

  13. Leo

    December 12, 2021 at 10:56 am

    @jstrummer. The champions are likely the one you mention. However, there are another incentives, As an example in Bundesliga if you finish between Top 4 you qualify for the UEFA Champions League earning in average 40 million (thats more than twice the winner of the MLS Cup can get). If you are 5th, 6th or maybe 7th you can qualify for other minor UEFA tournaments. Even if you are a low team you have small satisfactions like finish 15th to not be relegated from the top flight division. It’s completely different in USA. besides the MLS cup there is nothing. Even qualification for Concacaf Champions League is laughable as the prize money are less than 1 million dollars for the winner. It’s not worth the effort. And of course as there is no relegation in MLS, hence the teams at the bottom couldn’t care less whether they win or lose matches. That is why MLS is boring. There is almost nothing to play for. It hurts when I see full crowded stadiums. There are a lot of people in USA that love soccer but these people in USA deserve so much better product than the garbage MLS give them.

  14. jstrummer

    December 12, 2021 at 10:04 am

    So were less than halfway through the European season and we can easily pen PSG and Bayern as champions, won’t be long until we add Real to the list. That’s 3 of the 5 top leagues that are pretty much done and dusted. Unfortunately, this season is quite similar to others in recent memory, believe many leagues in Europe could use a little more parity.

  15. JP

    December 11, 2021 at 7:50 pm

    It’s more nuanced than having a dominant club like in most Euro leagues or parity like MLS. Too much parity isn’t good if it creates wild swings in club performance year to year. Like Columbus winning last season and missing the playoff this year.

    The optimal balance is to have a certain number of teams perform well over a number of years (even if they don’t win the championship) to the point fans know which clubs are the presumed favorites heading into a season. Sort of a benchmark.

    This doesn’t have to last decades and should be fluid in terms of which teams occupy that status (based on performance). This is how most other American sports leagues operate.
    Handful of teams always near the top for 3-5 years (sometimes longer) and maybe win a championship within that window, then the teams chasing them catch up and dethrone them…and the cycle resumes.

    Some recent examples, Golden State/Lebron’s team in the NBA, Chicago/Pittsburgh/Tampa (from 2010 to current) in the NHL, New England (outlier in number of years) in the NFL, and LA Dodgers/Houston/Boston in MLB

    It seems Seattle sort of occupies this space in MLS, but the pack of contenders year to year very random otherwise. There needs to be more consistency so rivals and storylines can form. If the perception is any team can win any year its kind of less meaningful. Can a Cinderella story even happen in that environment?

  16. greg

    December 10, 2021 at 12:56 pm

    If there’ll never be full integration between MLS & USL for full on pro-rel I like the idea of an MLS1 and 2; but there needs to be jeopardy for relegation and a tangible difference between the status & payout in each league.

    And yes, there needs to be a trimming of the playoffs. Introduce some real incentive to make it.

  17. CB4

    December 10, 2021 at 11:36 am

    Drop the salary cap. Let some bored US billionaires have some fun.
    The best players in the world (and their wives/family) wouldn’t need much persuading to move to a lot of US cities – compared to crap northern ones in England.
    $$$ talks. Full stop.

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