Wherever Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber goes, he touts the league’s competitive balance. MLS is a league of parity, and as the 2017 season kicks off, every team — including the two expansion teams — feels like it has a chance at making the playoffs and lifting the MLS Cup.
Garber loves it, and he believes the fans love it. But ultimately this competitive balance is hurting the league.
There are three main reasons for the parity in the league. The first is the huge home/road disparity. In 2016 no MLS team had a losing record at home or a winning record on the road. Second, the league’s salary structure creates a wildly skewed system in which only a handful of players can receive large contracts. This rewards teams that build with American stalwarts, or South and Central American standouts who aren’t quite good enough to earn a big-money contract in Europe. But it keeps teams from having strong lineups top to bottom.
The third is the league’s bad habit of scheduling games during international breaks. The best players in the league — the ones good enough to play for their countries — tend to miss at least a handful of MLS games every year, bringing good teams back to the pack without them.
Combine all three and you have a league in which the league’s best team can easily lose to the league’s worst team, on any given weekend. This is held up by Garber and his ilk as proof that MLS is competitive. In reality, it’s less about the league’s worst teams being competitive with the best, and more about the league’s best teams being artificially dragged down to the level of the worst.
The problem with this is that MLS struggles for attention and excitement in the crowded American sports landscape. It’s impossible to sell the league if there’s nothing to separate Team A from Team B.
The NBA gets this. Part of the NBA’s success is that the league knew it needed to sell star power, and that a focus on players like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would provide a lift for all teams. It meant that the league could not only sell Lakers-Celtics or Bulls-Knicks to a national audience but that Minnesota fans would pile into Target Center to see if their squad could take down the league’s marquee teams.
MLS would do well to follow the NBA model and create a system that allows well-managed teams to thrive. It won’t necessarily create a model where only the biggest markets succeed. The NBA’s best reside in Cleveland, San Antonio and Oakland. That’s the competitive balance that MLS should be chasing: The chance for any team to become a marquee team, not the chance for awful teams to beat good teams on a weekly basis.
• The U.S. women’s national team started the SheBelieves Cup with a 1-0 victory against Germany. Despite the four-team tournament’s awkward name, it should be a marquee event; with the U.S., Germany, France and England, it matches up four of the top five women’s soccer teams in the world. The Americans will always be the favorites, since they’re both top of the rankings and playing at home. But three wins would still be an impressive achievement.
• This year’s standard-bearers for MLS in the CONCACAF Champions League will be Dallas and Vancouver, who will face Liga MX teams in the semifinals. Dallas will play Pachuca while Vancouver will face Tigres. Both MLS teams will be underdogs. The league desperately hopes that one of them can succeed.
• National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Jeff Plush announced that he will be leaving his post, a surprise move just one month after the league announced a long-term TV deal with Lifetime. Plush endured a lot of criticism for not pushing the league further in terms of attention and sponsorships. His successor inherits a league with a good foundation but needing a significant push to reach the next level.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Arsenal at Liverpool, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. It feels like the season is slipping away from both of these teams. Liverpool in particular is struggling mightily, and is another bad week from dropping behind Manchester United in the race for the top four. Arsenal badly needs a victory as well, in part to clear the gathering storm clouds away from manager Arsene Wenger.
MLS: Dallas at Los Angeles, 3 p.m. Saturday, Univision. The most fascinating game of MLS’ opening weekend is this one, which, oddly, will be on national Spanish-language TV. Dallas is the favorite to take home the MLS Cup this year. Los Angeles is rebuilding after losing coach Bruce Arena and all but one of its big-name designated players.
SheBelieves Cup: U.S. vs. England, 4 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. England’s quest to rise in the rankings took a hit Wednesday when France scored twice late to win 2-1. It would have been England’s first victory over France since 1974. There isn’t such a streak going for this one — England defeated the U.S. in 2011 — but it’s still a huge match for the visitors, who want to be among the world’s elite.
MLS: New York at Atlanta, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1. Minnesota will be compared to Atlanta for years, as the expansion mates compete to be the first to everything. A few league analysts wonder if Atlanta is set up to be the best expansion team in league history. A good home start against New York might set the course. The Loons host Atlanta in their home opener on March 12.