Parity Renders MLS GiantlessMLS’s incredible parity leaves the league with no giant clubs to showcase
by Jeff Maurer | Friday, July 20, 2012
I’m on record as being a big fan of parity. Maybe that’s an extrapolation of my political beliefs, or more likely it’s the result of being a Seattle Mariners fan and watching as first the Yankees, then the Yankees and Red Sox, then the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels, and now three fourths of the league crush my pathetic team with superior resources. The Mariners’ situation now is a bit like the Eurozone’s: try as I might, it’s hard for me to picture how things are going to get better from here.
That’s a very different feeling than the way I felt when DC United were down and out two years ago. And for those who don’t remember: in 2010 DC United were REALLY on hard times. If United were a person, their “rock bottom” story – when shared at an AA meeting – would cause the moderator to say “Whoa – that is messed up. You need to not come back here until you get your shit straight.”
But United did get their shit straight, and in only two years. And that was always likely: with a salary cap in place, a team is only a few good drafts and signings away from competing. Even within the season, the field is packed tight enough and the playoff spots are plentiful enough that just about every team holds on to at least faint glimmers of hope for most of the year. We’ve already been playing this current MLS season for almost four months now and we haven’t even eliminated Toronto yet.
But there’s a down side to the parity: it’s hard to tell who the good teams in MLS are. The league’s best are only a shade better than the league’s middling. Look at it statistically: Real Madrid won La Liga this year averaging 2.63 points per match. Manchester City: 2.34 points. Juventus: 2.21 points. Borussia Dortmund: 2.38 points. Right now, the best team in MLS is San Jose, averaging just 2 points per match. Sporting Kansas City leads the East with only 1.8 Points per match. If European leagues are David versus Goliath, MLS is David versus a guy a few inches taller.
Parity hurts MLS greatly in the CONCACAF Champions League. Not only are our best teams only the best in MLS by small margins, but the teams we send to play are not necessarily the best. There are a number of ways to qualify for the CCL, and only one (winning the Supporter’s Shield) ensures that the best team will go. The MLS Cup winner is often not the best team; MLS Cup is simply awarded to the team that has the best November. You can also qualify by having your reserves win the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Hence, one team qualifies via cake walk, one team qualifies via essay contest and one team gets a spot by having its owner win the sack race at the annual MLS Owner’s Retreat. The latter one must be true as it is the only logical way I can think to explain Toronto making it nearly every year; Tom Anselmi must be the Mario Andretti of the gunny sack.
Let me reiterate: I like parity. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But it’s notable that as the “giants” of other leagues (who, it should be noted, are not actual giants – the tallest Barcelona player is only three apples high) tour the country this summer, we have no MLS giants to pair them against. The Galaxy? Please…I’m sure they’ll awake from their slumber in time for the playoffs (a behavior in LA known as “Shaqing”), but you can’t make any claims of dominance while you’re sitting behind the second-year Vancouver Whitecaps in the table. The Red Bulls? True, Henry’s “what – did I just score a great goal? Oh, it happens so often that I didn’t really notice” face is showing up frequently these days, but it’s also true that the Red Bulls most impressive achievement is still winning the 2010 Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic (they beat Mickey’s All Stars on an own-goal by Lumiere). Real Salt Lake? It can’t be them...they play in a small market and are never even on national television.
For better or worse: MLS has no giants. The 2012 Supporters Shield winner might be sitting fifth in their conference right now. Our representatives to the CONCACAF Champions League might be in full-on crisis mode by the time those matches start (i.e. this year’s Los Angeles Galaxy). It’s not ideal; it’d be nice to have a flagship team or two to make MLS look good internationally. But for the balance of domestic play, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.