Parity reigns supreme in MLS

At the All-Star break, two things stand out in MLS.

LAFC is on course to break the league record for points in a season.

And upstarts Austin FC, FC Cincinnati and the Chicago Fire are all poised to make the playoffs, something Austin FC and FC Cincinnati have never done and the Fire has done once in the last nine years. (Even expansion Charlotte FC, after a chaotic start to its first season, is in the hunt for a playoff spot.)

MLS is far different from Europe's big 5 leagues, which are dominated by one or several teams.

Different league champions (1996-2022)
Major League Soccer (15)
Ligue 1 (10)
Premier League (6)
Bundesliga (6)
LaLiga (5)
Serie A (5)

Titles won by the three teams with the most titles (1996-2022)
Major League Soccer (11)
Ligue 1 (18)
Premier League (22)
Bundesliga (24)
LaLiga (24)
*Serie A (25)
*Includes Juventus' 2005 title of which it was later stripped.

LAFC is averaging 2.22 points per game through 23 games, which puts it on course to finish with more than 75 points.

In 2021, New England set a new record with 73 points, marking the fourth time in five seasons -- all but the Covid-shortened 2020 season -- that a different Supporters' Shield winner set a new record for points in a season.

Success in one season did not translate into success in subsequent seasons, though. Toronto FC win the 2017 Supporters' Shield but didn't make the playoffs in 2018. LAFC won the 2019 Supporters' Shield but missed the postseason two years later. The New York Red Bulls were 2018 Supporters' Shield  winners but haven't won a postseason match in the three years since then.

And the 2021 regular-season champion Revs? They are one of four teams tied on points for seventh place in the Eastern Conference, 15 points off the lead held by Philadelphia.

New England is not alone. Based on the current standings, more teams in the top 10 in last year's overall  standings are in this year's bottom 10 (Kansas City, Atlanta United and New England) than in this year's top 10 (Philadelphia and NYCFC).

And put another way: as many teams in last year's bottom 10 are in this year's top 10 (LAFC, Austin FC, CF Montreal and FC Dallas) as remain in the bottom 10 in 2022 (San Jose, Houston, Toronto FC and Inter Miami).

Since its launch, spending limits (salary cap), prioritized spending increases (Designated Players,Targeted Allocation Money, U-22 Initiative) and controls on player movement (restricted free agency, Allocation orders, Discovery lists, SuperDraft, Homegrown and territorial rights) have been cornerstones of MLS.

Many are player mechanisms used by other American pro sports leagues for years to control costs, restrict player movement into their leagues — even in the face of growing global player markets — and promote parity.

Much attention has been made of MLS's unwillingness to adopt a promotion-relegation system. But what separates MLS from other major soccer leagues is its emphasis on parity, which we seeing play out again this year.

When MLS launched in 1996, teams did not enjoy the support of fans over generations. Parity was a way to ensure that fans, players and coaches believed their team had a sporting chance every season.

Austin FC went from 24th out of 27 teams in 2021, 42 points off the pace of the Revs, to second, just six points behind LAFC in 2022. FC Cincinnati had the worst record in MLS in each of its first three seasons but it now sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, ahead of such teams as New England, Atlanta United and Toronto FC, all regular-season or postseason winners in the last five years.

How much of these changes are due to what Austin FC and FC Cincinnati have done right or what New England, Atlanta United and Toronto FC have done wrong?

From an American perspective, having the same team or the same two or three teams win every year, like in the big 5 leagues, is unfathomable. In the last decade, each of the other four major American leagues has had a minimum of seven different champions. The competitive structure of these leagues isn't better or worse. It's just different.

But parity isn't for everyone.

In the extreme, it promotes mediocrity, something MLS must consider in face of the already difficult battle it faces from competition for fans who have access to follow teams in other leagues with better players and longer histories. And fewer restrictions on player movement.

13 comments about "Parity reigns supreme in MLS".
  1. Donald Lee, August 9, 2022 at 12:28 p.m.

    What evidence is there that parity promotes mediocrity?  

    That statement needs support and analysis to be meaningful, or to be believed.

  2. Carey Johnson replied, August 9, 2022 at 2:05 p.m.

    Uh, the MLS is the evidence!

  3. Will G, August 9, 2022 at 12:57 p.m.

    Informative article, but I'm not quite sure of the point.  Comparing the parity of MLS to other leagues when MLS uses a single leg playoff tournament to determine its champion is not only a poor comparison, it approaches disengenuous.

    The big 5 Euro leagues would see much more parity if they applied the same tournament to determine its champion.  With the volume of regular season games compared to playoff games, its not secret why other leagues place all the importance on the table.

  4. Kent James replied, August 11, 2022 at 7:28 p.m.

    That's a good point, although the article is somewhat vague about what a "title" is in the MLS. Comparing the Supporters Shield winner to league winners in other leagues is an apples to apples comparison (though one could argue that teams don't focus on winning the supporters Shield, so it's a bit different than other leagues).  Using MLS Cup winners has the problem you identify (the variability of a single-elimination tournament).  


  5. Ben Myers, August 9, 2022 at 3:54 p.m.

    Parity does not promote quality. MLS is still the equiavalent of (or just below) the English Chapionship and lesser European top pro divisions. With few exceptions (Dallis is one), MLS has put little money into player development, often depening instead on the higher level pay-for-play club leagues.  And the influx of older pro stars from abroad continues unabated.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, August 9, 2022 at 7:53 p.m.

    Not saying you do this, but in general when people say they are comparing MLS to European leagues, they are actually comparing MLS clubs to the best clubs in the league, not all the clubs. 

    By taking away the ability to buy success by throwing money at the club, financial parity actually incourages teams to try succeeding by playing better soccer and being very selective in their player acquisitions.

  7. Bob Ashpole, August 9, 2022 at 7:48 p.m.

    Parity doesn't mean all teams are interchangeable. Parity meains financial parity. Unlike in Europe, MLS clubs are not allowed to dominate the league by pumping money into the club.

  8. R2 Dad, August 9, 2022 at 8:10 p.m.

    The mediocrity case can be made by the SJ (new) earthquakes. From 2008-2022 there has been 1 good year (supporters shield) with the rest all poor results. the new stadium (which cost a fortune) has resulted in an additional 5K fans per match, but this year attendance has drifted back down to pre-Avaya stadium figures. Now that the economy is turning down the heat, I wouldn't be surprised if the owners look to Teflon Don to sell or move. "Look, Donnie, we tried the new stadium thing, got a huge outdoor bar to make the kids happy, bought a fancy south american coach--nothin's worked. I'm out of patience and now my gate is getting squeezed. Make me happy, Donnie. I'm not happy."

  9. R2 Dad replied, August 9, 2022 at 8:14 p.m.

    RIP Paulie Walnuts!

  10. Wayne Norris replied, August 12, 2022 at 8:26 p.m.

    Mediocrity would not apply to San Jose as it implies "middle quality"......

  11. Kent James, August 11, 2022 at 7:40 p.m.

    The MLS parity model makes it better for fans of specific clubs, because their teams have a decent chance of winning some years.  You don't get the frustrations of a club that always struggles at the bottom, while others spend enough money they rarely fall far from the top, as is the case in most other leagues. This makes the outcome of every game more in doubt, which I think is more exciting.  Teams push each other more, because that's what well-match competition does.

    On the down side, MLS teams competing outside the league against teams from other leagues are at a disadvantage, since they are essentially and "average" MLS team (since no one strays far from the median) playing what might be a high outlier.  Additionally, the best teams from unbalanced leagues will have better players and more resources (almost by definition), so one would expect that teams playing like teams would produce higher level games (which is why we all like to watch the champions league).  

    Personally, I like the MLS model for the US at the moment, since I think it priorities the needs and desires of the MLS fans.

    A bigger (related) philosophical question is "is it better for soccer (worldwide) to have all the best players concentrated in Europe on the big clubs there, so we can see the best players in the world play each other, or is it better for the best players to be spread around the world, and only come together in tournaments like the World Cup or the World Club Championship (which would be more meaningful if the talent were spread wider)?"  Not sure of the answer to that one, but I will confess I do like watching teams with the best players in the world on them playing each other.  

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, August 11, 2022 at 9:33 p.m.

    Good post Kent. I suspect that for the first year they stacked DC United to impress in the international competitions. That is just a guess though.

    The interesting thing is that MLS clubs do better against Mexican clubs recently. At one time they just couldn't compete. Now they compete, but they have to choose where to commit their best players.

  13. Kent James, August 12, 2022 at 1:26 p.m.

    Bob, you raise another good point.  It may be better publicity for the league if there are a few identifiable teams who are very successful (as the NY Cosmos were in the NASL); I certainly remember the DC United team you mentioned, and enjoyed watching them because they had some very good (and famous) players. The answers aren't always clear....

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