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
MLS271970.4725.9
NFL322165.6825
NHL322063.0618.8
MLB301756.7826.7
NBA301756.7723.3
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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