MLS Parity is a Myth


  1. a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
  2. a widely held but false belief or idea.

During the intermittent battles that spring up over whether promotion/relegation would be an improvement to US Soccer (I’m clearly on the record that it would be) an argument that MLS parity makes for a more competitive product always rears its ugly head.  The typical line spouted is that MLS has had “nine different champions” in nineteen years and the EPL has had five.  But this is comparing apples and oranges.

First, we actually have to compare the same achievement.  Most of the world considers their league champion to be the team that earned the most points throughout the league calendar.  In MLS that is the Supporter’s Shield, not the MLS Cup.   (Instead, the MLS Champion is the winner of the MLS Cup, a tournament competition between a certain number of teams who make the playoffs and I’ll touch on that below.)  In every major league in the world, each team plays a balanced schedule against every other team in their division.  MLS doesn’t do this.

For the first three years MLS didn’t even have an award for its regular season champion.  Starting in 1999 it began awarding the supporter’s shield.   The award was backdated to include the prior year champions.  Worse from a sporting perspective, MLS has always had an unbalanced schedule where teams play regional rivals more than teams on the opposite coast.  The argument for this has been cost of travel, but it makes teams in a tougher conference play far stiffer competition than teams in a weaker group.

On paper, MLS looks pretty competitive in how many teams have won the Supporter’s Shield.  Ten teams have taken the trophy in the last 19 years.  (Two of those teams have folded, Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion.)  Comparatively, five teams have won the English Premier League.  During the same period five teams have won both La Liga and Serie A, six teams have won the Bundesliga and eight teams have won Ligue 1. This would seem to support the argument that MLS is somehow more competitive than the EPL (this weakens when compared to Ligue 1, which has had almost the same number of winners in a far more difficult league).

The argument breaks down once you start looking at actual numbers.  Four teams have won almost seventy percent of all the shields (13 of 19).  MLS has been dominated by DC United, LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew and San Jose.  If you add in two more teams (Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City) the same six teams have won the Shield 15 of 19 times (79%) AND have been runner’s up 13 of 19 times (68%).  Parity is non-existent.

Meanwhile, MLS crowns its “Champion” with the victor of a limited Cup.  “[MLS Cup and Supporter’s Shiled] two separate competitions,” Arena said. “They’re unique in themselves, one has nothing to do with the other.”[i] During the last 19 years there have been nine different winners of the MLS Cup.  Again, on paper, MLS looks like a very competitive league.  When you look at the details that Myth becomes exposed.

Two teams have won the MLS Cup nine times (47%) and five teams have won 15 of the 19 cups (79%).  The rest of the soccer world has their cup competitions too and during the same time frame there have been eight different winners of the FA Cup and 11 different winners of the League (Capitol One) Cup in England.  In Germany’s DFB-Pokal there have been 8 different winners.  In France there have been 12 winners of the Coupe de France and 12 winners of the Coupe de la Ligue.  Italy has had nine different winners of the Copa Italia and Spain has had 11 winners of the Copa del Rey.

MLS parity is a myth.  Just like the rest of the world a small number of clubs win most of the time.  The difference is here, our soccer is artificially limited by the Byzantine rules of MLS and the lack of promotion/relegation.

[i] Bruce Arena, quoted in SB Nation



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  2. crisis182 · March 17, 2016

    I appreciate you responding to my article ( Though I believe I addressed your concerns. The MLS is only 20 years old, a relatively young league. The percentages don’t take into account that in the last seven years the league size has nearly doubled. Also, DC United won most of their titles when the league had just a few teams, so it skews the results. Though I will give you the LA Galaxy have been relatively dominant as of late (winning three of the last five years). Also, I’m not sure why you randomly cut off the 20th season (though that’s a small point).

    Also, you incorrectly compare the MLS Cup to tournaments like the FA Cup. The FA Cup is more like the Lamar Hunt US Open. The MLS Cup is a playoff that is qualified for based on the regular season standings. The US Open is open to many teams across the United States, like the FA Cup is in England. The tournaments are actually very similar with “bigger” teams joining the bracket several rounds in. Since the MLS has existed a team from the league has won the tournament every year but once (1999, the fourth year of MLS existence as a league). Eight different MLS clubs have one the tournament.

    I also address Ligue 1 in my piece. Though there was parity before, it no longer exists as PSG was purchased and subsequently have the highest paid roster of any soccer club in the world. They have won four straight league titles and unless something changes I’m sure they’ll continue to win.

    Regardless, I appreciate you actually responding to my piece instead of just slinging silly insults on Twitter. Now can you kindly point me to how you would like Pro/Rel to function in the United States? I’ll gladly take a look. I’m on Twitter @ReportingKC


  3. barroldinho · June 6, 2016

    When this was written, there had only been 4 EPL champs since MLS began (Blackburn won the title in 1995).

    Since MLS began, very few leagues have crowned 10 champions (or supporters shield winners).

    MLS are certainly NOT the only football league in the world to crown a champion via playoffs. Mexico, Australia and Belgium use them among others.

    The FA Cup involves hundreds of clubs. MLS Cup involves 12 today and is open to 20. Of course, previously there have been fewer league teams and entrants.

    MLS does have parity as evidenced by the points spread across the table each season, different teams contending for the SS/MLS Cup each season and the relative prevalence of “worst to first”.

    While the Galaxy is relatively successful, they do not dominate the standings on a yearly basis, have finished with the worst record in the last decade as well as missing the playoffs 3 times.

    DC United have also give worst to first very recently.


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