By Paul Gardner
The complaint, often heard these days from Europe, is that the major leagues there are becoming too predictable. This is hardly a new gripe, but we get to hear much more of it lately because of the English Premier League.
In Spain and Italy this is an old problem. Looking only at the 40 championships in La Liga and Serie A titles since 1970 shows just how dominant a small group of clubs are. In Spain, 28 of the 40 titles have been won by either Real Madrid or Barcelona. In Italy, 29 of the titles have gone to either Juventus or AC Milan or Inter Milan.
The EPL, formed in 1993 is now considered the world’s No. 1 league. It may or not be that, but it is certainly in the top spot when it comes to publicity and marketing. So we’re bound to hear all about how the league has been commandeered by the big four -- Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Only one of the EPL’s 17 championships has not been won by one of those teams -- that was when Blackburn Rovers snuck off with the 1995 title. And it’s not just the top place, either. Since 2001, Newcastle United is the only “outsider” to even make one of the top three positions.
Is this domination by an elite group necessarily a bad thing? Does it take the excitement out of the season? Does it turn the fans off? Does it have a negative effect on the smaller teams -- in particular, does it make them play defensively?
You’d have to say that the answer to all those questions -- except possibly the last one -- is No. Indeed, given the continued popularity of the sport and the soldout stadiums, you might even argue that the presence of a small group of rich super-clubs (and the super clubs are always super-rich these days) is an attraction.
Soccer does not, never has, complied with “obvious” scenarios. Way back in the late 1800s in England when the sport was still an amateur affair, it was predicted with great certainty that the arrival of pros would kill it off. When that didn’t happen, a new alarm bell was sounded because most of the pros were foreigners -- Scots, that is -- and players were beginning to move from their hometowns to play elsewhere. Surely the fans would never put up with that?
They did, of course, and soccer grew stronger. It even flourished when teams all over Europe began to sign players from other continents. And it now seems able to live quite happily with seriously unbalanced leagues.
This might be a matter of some interest to the people at Major League Soccer. Parity is an important word there, as it is in all American sports. MLS has certainly got plenty of parity, and you know that is considered a good thing -- even though the current experience in Europe tells a very different story, where disparity is working like a charm.
The extent of parity in MLS can be assessed very quickly by trying to predict the upcoming season’s likely winners. Quite impossible. Last season, the title was won by a flagrant outsider, Real Salt Lake, which happened to have the worst regular-season record of all eight playoff teams. The year before that, the New York Red Bulls -- again, the worst of the qualifiers -- got to the final.
OK, the playoff system does add an extra layer of uncertainty to the title-chasing, but the regular season is already a free-for-all before the playoffs even begin. Can anyone predict, with confidence, and with some solid soccer reasoning to back it up, just which the dominant teams are going to be this year?
Very doubtful. Which means that MLS is maxing out on parity. The advantages of having a league in which all of its teams have a realistic chance of winning are too obvious to even mention. Or are they?
Take a look at upsets, for instance, a trusty and much treasured staple in all sports. How can a league with the level of parity that MLS possesses, ever feature an upset? Maybe with the Philadelphia Union, which, as an expansion team, is not expected to flourish too strongly in its first year. But its opponents Thursday night, the Seattle Sounders, showed last year that equality is not beyond even an expansion team.
Without upsets, an attractive element of surprise is missing from MLS. Parity may also have an effect on the game played on the field, introducing a certain sameness -- possibly evidenced by a lot of tied games. Last season 33 percent -- one MLS regular season game in every three -- was tied. This is high -- in England (25.5 percent), Spain (21.8 percent) and Italy 25 (25 percent) it was closer to one game in every four.
Given the folklore judgment that Americans don’t like tied games, that is also something that MLS should look at. A more disturbing thought is that parity might be responsible for the MLS’s anemic scoring rate of 2.5 goals per game. Even the traditionally defensive Italians do slightly better at 2.6, while Spain registers a healthy 2.9.
Even so, I’d hesitate to indict parity as the cause of an excess of tied games and a shortage of goals before I’d found a way to assess the contribution of cautious coaching. And, no, I don’t have the slightest idea who the 2010 MLS champions will be.