In Italy, Spain and France, the league winners have been a foregone conclusion for several weeks, even months. Juventus is 20 points clear in Serie A with seven games to play, and are heading for their eighth successive championship. Paris Saint-Germain are in an identical position in La Ligue, to make it six titles out of the last seven. Barcelona nailed any doubts about its imminent 26th LaLiga title on Saturday when it finished off closest rival Atlético Madrid with a 2-0 victory, taking them 11 points clear with seven games left. Any sporadic scraps of tension are down to the fight for European spots or to avoid relegation.
A radio report on Germany before the weekend celebrated the fact that the Bundesliga title this season is finally something more than a one-horse race, Bayern Munich having cantered away with the shield for the last six seasons. Countries around the world tuned in for the Bavarians' home game with leader Borussia Dortmund on Saturday night, with just two points separating the teams. What they saw was indeed quality soccer, but only from Bayern, which was 4-0 up by halftime, and 5-0 by the end (by which times countries around the world had switched off). Although the German title race is far from over, it was clear from this hopelessly slanted match-up who the best team in the country is, and who still deserves to be champion.
There's another side to this supposed excitement in leagues with as yet undecided titles. For the huge majority of German fans, it's irrelevant whether Bayern or Borussia ends up champion, and that also applies to the two-horse race in England between Liverpool and Manchester City. It's only the media that's trying to tell us how exciting this all is. If you're not invested in either of these teams, it perhaps comes down to which side you dislike the most. If at all. In my case, I have little regard for all four of these teams, for reasons that couldn't possibly interest you. So I resent being constantly told how exciting it all is.
Let's go back to European soccer in the 1970s, when everything was better, but when of course it was also much worse - the playing surfaces, the stadiums, the leniency toward foul play, and the fan culture of violence and racism (oh, hang on ... as the last week has shown yet again, Europe's still getting its house in order on this matter a half century on). There was, though, an element of something that was much more exciting - the sense of competition. In England at the end of the 1971-72 season, Derby County finished with 58 points (under the old two-points-for-a-win system), one point ahead of Leeds United, Liverpool and Manchester City. When Derby won it again three years later, it was almost as close as it just edged Liverpool, Ipswich and Everton. Between 1967 and 1973, seven different clubs were English champions in as many years.
In terms of tension about who's going to win, watching European soccer is now as exciting as watching the property market. That is, the winners will be those with the most cash, and that was a result of the biggest clubs pushing to reform the European Champions Cup into the European Champions League in the early 1990s, with the aim of amassing revenue and creating globally marketable brands. There will be a very occasional exception (Leicester City in 2016 as English Premier League winners) that only serves to highlight what a stitch-up the sport has become. Even in smaller leagues such as Scotland, Austria and Switzerland, teams such as Celtic and Salzburg - who are consistently woeful in European competition - have the financial advantage to tediously rack up consecutive domestic titles.
So while MLS is not (yet) going to recommend itself to a wider international audience, be thankful that it's not plagued with so much capital that most of the competitive element has been squeezed out of the trophy hunt in favor of the biggest and most ruthless operators. In MLS it would certainly be nice to see more consistently strong clubs emerging from the ever-expanding pack (every league needs a few teams to really boo), but in the meantime be happy that when it comes down to the final weeks of the season, most of the teams are not already thinking about the next.
Incidentally, some of the most eagerly awaited games in the English domestic season now come from the promotion playoffs in the second, third, fourth and fifth tiers, introduced in the late 1980s to extend fan interest and reduce the number of dead games at the season's end. They were decried at the time as being unfair to those teams who would previously have gained automatic promotion. Yet they bring attention and moments of glory to clubs and players normally overshadowed by the perennial big brands. Calls to abolish the playoffs are no longer heard.
Playoffs. I wonder where the English got the idea for that?
(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)