It’s easy to focus on MLS’s shortcomings. So let’s do that: the level of play sometimes stinks. Too many mediocre teams make the playoffs. There’s turf. There’s an empty stadium in Frisco. There’s Dracula’s blind cousin Baldomero Toledo manning the center circle. There’s a team with a Spanish name in a state that has all the Latin spice of toast dipped in water rolled in cabbage shavings.
Still: in at least one way, MLS is infinitely better than the Premier League. Better than La Liga. Better than Serie A. And that’s competitive balance.
I am a huge fan of competitive balance. And I’m more than a little surprised that fans of other leagues don’t demand that their league take a few pointers from the MLS model.
Look at how cynical things have gotten in England. There are only two ways to win the Premier League: be old money (Manchester United, Arsenal, and — what the heck — I’ll throw in Liverpool even though they’ve won as many Premier League titles as Scunthorpe United) or be new money (Chelsea, Manchester City). There are no scrappy underdog success stories in the Premier League. It’s a perpetual slobs versus snobs comedy except that the guys from the rich, snooty fraternity always use their connections and superior resources to crush the ambitions of the ragtag bunch of misfits from Boner House (pronounced “BONN-er”). If you cheer for Fulham, Everton, Sunderland or any of the clubs cursed to haunt the middle and bottom of the table for all of eternity, you need to accept the fact that your team will never, ever, ever — not in a jillion lifetimes — win the Premier League.
That is, unless something drastic changes in the boardroom. That’s what happened with Manchester City, once the John Oates of Manchester, now the expensive play-thing of a billionaire oil sheik. As of this writing, they’re leading the league. This is exactly the trail blazed by Chelsea, who rode the high price of oil to three titles in the past decade. Because that’s how things work in the Premier League: boardroom shenanigans and commodity prices determine the fate of your club. You can have the best scouts and managers in the world — in the end they’ll be trumped by giant, oil-soaked piles of cash. Believe me, Wolverhampton’s scouts knew that David Silva is a good player. They just didn’t have enough money to do anything about it.
That’s how it goes in any league without a salary cap. Look at baseball — the Angels negotiated a new TV deal and promptly celebrated by adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. Across town, the Dodgers will be wearing empty-barrel-with-shoulder-strap-themed uniforms next year because Frank McCourt didn’t sign a pre-nup. The Oakland A’s can have Billy Beane and Jonah Hill and spreadsheets full of xFIP stats and snappy Aaron Sorkin dialogue; it doesn’t change the fact that they’re going to get beat like a dusty throw rug until they get a new stadium deal.
In MLS, if you stink, it’s your own fault. Player evaluation matters. Player performance matters even more. Success and failure are determined by the people running and playing for the team, not by personal and economic events completely unrelated to soccer. The price of soy futures will never deliver you a title. An owner’s philandering ways will not doom you to a decade of irrelevance. No matter how bad your team is today, you can live in hope that some good acquisitions and good luck might one day lead to a championship.
It’s ironic: all of the American sports leagues except baseball prefer an egalitarian — dare I say socialist — model in which resources are distributed roughly evenly and there are checks against any group accumulating enough wealth to dominate their competitors. But Europe prefers a bare-knuckles, Daniel Plainview-type capitalist system in which the rich do what they will and the poor suffer what they must. At the risk of sounding un-American: I prefer the American way of doing things.