The 2015 MLS season has been worse than bad — it’s been boring — and parity is the prime culprit
The strange position Major League Soccer occupies in American culture makes criticizing it a fraught endeavor. Those of us who love the league and want to see it thrive are surrounded not only by the indifferent masses, but also by a vocal minority who actively dislike it for being too foreign and by a sizable faction of soccer fans for whom it’s not foreign enough. No discussion about the league’s on-field quality, financial structure, or long-term vision can go on for very long before we’ve all got our guards up, dissecting each other’s motives, trying to sniff out the haters, the poseurs, the MLS Bots, the Eurosnobs, the pro/rel zealots, and so on.
It’s with all of these complex dynamics and fault lines in mind that I’m forced to say this: the first six weeks of the 2015 MLS season have been a boring, shapeless, disoriented mess. While it may still be too early to draw any ironclad conclusions, all signs point to a league that’s plagued by a worsening parity problem.
MLS is on pace for 48 scoreless draws this season, nearly three times the seventeen recorded last year. Scoring is way, way down even by the low standards of MLS in springtime; without significant improvement, its current average of 2.17 goals per game will become the lowest season average in league history. And as Will Parchman pointed out over the weekend, after 64 games played, the league’s highest goal differential stands at +5, and the lowest at -4. That’s the smallest gap between the best and the worst that the league has seen this far into the season since at least 2004.
What does a league in which every club is racing to the middle look like? It looks like expected goal (xG) maps with hardly a freckle on them. It looks like entire halves without a shot on target. And it sounds like D.C. United captain Bobby Boswell’s blunt assessment of his team’s somnambulant 1-1 draw with the Houston Dynamo last Saturday:
“Tonight it was almost like there was no bad blood between anyone on the field. It was like ‘oh I am not going to kick you and you are not going to kick me.’ It was almost like ‘who really wants it tonight?’ which is a weird feeling.”
The stats back Boswell up. Neither club seemed particularly interested in moving the ball around, especially in the second half, and each side attempted just twelve tackles on the night.
The problem for MLS isn’t that such risk-averse play is misguided, but that it’s perfectly rational. While the salary cap and various player-dispersal mechanisms have long made a certain degree of parity a foregone conclusion—as is the norm in American sports—the prime suspect in the abrupt levelling of the playing field this year is the league’s absurd decision to expand the MLS Cup playoffs to twelve clubs. With sixty percent of MLS teams bound for the postseason, why should Boswell’s second-place United push for a late winner in a non-conference, mid-April matchup?
It’s not difficult to find other MLS managers making similar calculations. When NYCFC’s Jason Kreis or Toronto’s Greg Vanney positively spin their teams’ early-season struggles, they’re not simply putting a brave face on underwhelming performances—they know full well that their much-hyped, expensively-assembled squads can afford to flounder for most of the season and stumble into the playoffs with a run of positive results in August and September.
The extreme evenness of the MLS playing field certainly has its defenders. There’s an undeniable madcap charm to a league where the Colorado Rapids—winless in their last eighteen games, without a goal in their last 600 minutes of play—can go on the road to second-place FC Dallas and come away with a 4-0 win. And there’s little doubt that in the short term, at least, competitive balance and plentiful playoff berths are good for business. MLS Commissioner Don Garber, a former NFL executive, has made it clear that he looks to his old employer as a shining example of the virtues of parity über alles. “I believe the NFL is the most popular league in the world for a reason,” he told the Houston Chronicle in 2010. “And that’s that every fan knows at the beginning of the season that their team has a chance to go to the Super Bowl… I certainly subscribe more to the NFL’s approach to parity than I do perhaps to the structure of the English Premier League.”
But it’s a critical mistake to assume that what’s good for the deeply rooted, massively popular NFL is necessarily good for an upstart entity like Major League Soccer. The NFL’s all-powerful media machine can get millions to tune in to a meaningless Jaguars-Raiders game on a Thursday night in December without breaking a sweat. Any game, no matter how insignificant, comes with a built-in surplus of hype, narrative, analysis, and attention—simply because it’s the NFL, and Americans can’t get enough of it.
But MLS isn’t trying to maximize revenue within an already-sacred national pastime; it’s trying to build something entirely new, to thrive in a country that has long been indifferent and even hostile to soccer, and to become a serious player in the sport’s global marketplace. And all of these goals are made more difficult to achieve by the league’s blurry, middling competitive environment. MLS can’t hope to captivate casual fans and deepen its cultural footprint when it rearranges itself like an unsolvable Rubik’s cube from season to season, and no club is ever much better or worse than any other. It needs great teams, true dynasties, heel heat—not just for the sake of on-field greatness but for the narrative and history and drama that come with it. In an era when Chelsea vs. Manchester United airs on U.S. network television, MLS needs to be able to counter with a Chelsea-Man United of its own.
That doesn’t mean that MLS needs to mirror the highly imbalanced top leagues in Europe. There is (or was) a far better model right here at home: for decades, Major League Baseball charted a perfectly-calibrated middle course between parity and narrative. Villainous dynasties like the Yankees prospered, but so did solid mid-market clubs like the Atlanta Braves and well-run minnows like the Oakland Athletics. There were great teams, but they were never guaranteed a World Series; there were awful teams, but they were never very far from rebuilding and contending again.
That’s exactly the ideal that MLS should be striving towards, and three factors helped create it: a healthy but restricted free-agent market, the lack of a salary cap, and a small number of playoff berths. MLS is, at last, making progress on the first of these with a very limited form of free agency included in the new CBA. Its salary cap will probably never be abandoned altogether, but the Designated Player Rule has already blown a hole through it and continued expansion of the DP system would allow the league’s would-be Yankees—including, no doubt, the actual Yankees—to build the true dynastic powerhouses it desperately needs.
At the very least, MLS needs to make sure 2015 is the first and last year we have to endure its disastrous experiment with a twelve-club playoff pool. No amount of short-term gain on a couple weekends in October is worth the long-term cost of turning half the season into a series of well-attended scrimmages. The only thing that the league will accomplish by trying to make every club an on-field success is to guarantee that none of them are. MLS doesn’t need to be the best league in the world, but it cannot be this boring–and if MLS can’t provide fans with the competitive drama that they crave, there are plenty of other places they can find it.