Bruin Sports Analytics
Why MLS is the Best League in the World
By: Bennett Kedrosky
MLS is the best league in the world. But best doesn’t mean it has the greatest players, coaches, or even the highest quality of play. As a sporting spectacle, however, MLS has the most compelling combination of competitive parity, coaching, and quality of play.
Consider other top leagues in world soccer. For example, the Bundesliga, a top 5 league worldwide, is dominated by Bayern which has won the league every year for the past decade. Then at the other end of the league are a handful of teams that will never make it out of the bottom positions.
Or consider the Premier League, often thought to be the best league in the world, where Manchester City has won 4 times in the past 5 years, and if a club is not owned by an oligarch or a petrostate, they have little to no chance of winning.
This brings us back to MLS. As the following chart shows, MLS is not dominated by a single club, nor are teams owned by oligarchs and petrostates. Instead, MLS is a quality competition with the highest level of competitive parity of any top league in the world.
The graph shows that MLS has had significantly more separate winners than other top European leagues. In the past 15 years, MLS has had 11 different winners in the past 15 years compared to only 3 for the Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A, with Ligue 1 being the closest with 7.
One of the main reasons why MLS is so fair is its salary cap system. Unlike many other leagues worldwide, MLS has a strict salary cap that ensures teams cannot overspend on players. This means all teams have a similar budget, which levels the playing field and prevents wealthy teams from dominating the league.
One of the primary factors in MLS’s parity is its salary cap system, which is designed to prevent teams from having an unfair financial advantage. By setting a limit on the amount of money teams can spend on player salaries, MLS ensures that each team has access to a similar pool of resources. This helps to level the playing field and foster an environment in which success comes from strategy and player development, rather than simply financial resources. Additionally, the salary cap system encourages teams to invest in their younger and less experienced players instead of relying solely on established stars, thus promoting growth and sustainability across the league.
In order to analyze the relationship between salary and league success, we will look at the Premier League, Ligue 1, and MLS during the 2022 season.
Firstly, in the Premier League, there is a strong relationship between payroll and league position. But when looking at Ligue 1, the graph is extremely skewed due to PSG’s disproportionately higher payroll. So when removing PSG from the graph, we get:
We again see a strong correlation between payroll and league position, with more successful teams having higher player salaries. Nothing too surprising yet. But when looking at MLS, we see a completely different trend caused by the salary cap.
In MLS, there is no clear relationship or maybe even a negative correlation between payroll and league position. Unlike in Europe, where large spending generally equates to greater success, MLS is not as affected by money. This leads to a more equitable league where more clubs have the opportunity to win because the same handful of teams do not consistently dominate like in Europe.
Furthermore, by being less influenced by money, MLS does not fall victim to a Matthew effect where the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer” as is common in other top leagues.
Another aspect of MLS that promotes fairness is its playoff format. Unlike other leagues where only the top teams qualify for the playoffs, MLS has a more inclusive playoff system. In MLS, the top nine teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs, meaning that even teams that finish lower in the standings can make the playoffs and compete for the championship.
Moreover, MLS also has strict regulations on player trading, ensuring that no team can hoard all the best players. The league has a unique mechanism called the Designated Player rule, which allows teams to sign high-profile players that exceed the salary cap limit. However, each team can only have a limited number of designated players, ensuring that no team can sign all the best players.
Finally, MLS also has a strong focus on developing homegrown players. The league has invested heavily in youth academies and player development programs, which has resulted in an increase in young players breaking into the first team. This emphasis on developing young players ensures that teams have a sustainable way of building a competitive team without relying on expensive transfers.
MLS is the fairest league in the world due to its strict salary cap system, playoff format, player trading regulations, and focus on developing young players. These regulations promote parity among teams, ensure that weaker teams have a fair chance to compete, and prevent wealthy teams from dominating the league. The MLS's focus on fairness has made it an attractive league for fans and players alike and has helped it grow into one of the most competitive leagues in the world.
Is parity an obstacle in the development of MLS?
As MLS continues to grow in popularity, the concept of parity in the league has become more widely discussed. While some find the prospect of unpredictable matches thrilling, others contend that a lack of predictability can make games less interesting, particularly without David vs Goliath or battles between powerhouses. For example, in England, even neutral fans may be drawn to matches like Manchester City vs Liverpool simply because they want to see who will win the "battle of the giants."
While teams like LAFC and Philadelphia have emerged as dominant forces in the league, MLS has generally resisted the formation of super teams and the establishment of a clear-cut hierarchy. In contrast to some European leagues where the top few finishers may seem predetermined after only a few weeks, MLS offers fans a more wide-open competition that can keep them engaged throughout the season. But it is worth considering that this unpredictability can also be detrimental to the league, particularly when the playoffs introduce randomness, and the best team does not always become MLS champion.
Additionally, the salary limitations prevent super teams from forming, thus creating a more even playing field. Teams cannot simply buy success through the acquisition of expensive players, as is often the case in European leagues. A more level playing field, less dictated by money can be seen as a positive aspect for fans, who may enjoy the more wide-open competition MLS offers.
In conclusion, parity in MLS has both advantages and disadvantages. While it promotes competition and prevents the formation of super teams, it can also result in unpredictable results and randomness in the playoffs. Furthermore, it can impact the viewing experience of fans who may find games without their favorite teams uninteresting. But it can also make the league exciting by allowing for surprises and upsets. As a result, in terms of creating a compelling sporting spectacle, MLS is the best league in world soccer.
Salary Data: https://www.capology.com/
League Data: https://fbref.com/en/comps/