Could San Jose and Los Angeles, the last two MLS Supporters' Shield winners, avoid EPL relegation? It would be close, but just maybe they could.
The annual MLS Cup has led to another round of annual questions about what this soccer league means and its place in the larger football world.
American soccer fans tend to fall into one of two groups. One refuses to acknowledge MLS exists, because the cool kids only talk about England and Europe. The other continues to believe MLS is improving and sees the American league (prematurely) knocking on the door of premier status.
Neither view is wholly defensible. Proving MLS exists, however, is a little easier than comparing the American league to its overseas counterparts.
The Supporters' Shield was the selection vehicle for MLS teams. English clubs place greater emphasis on league tables than FA Cup runs, and tables dictate promotion and relegation.
The Supporters’ Shield is awarded to the team with the most points in the MLS regular season. The last two teams to win the Supporters’ Shield are the San Jose Earthquakes and the Los Angeles Galaxy (the latter of which also has won the last two MLS Cups).
Americans love championship games. And Americans especially love underdogs who can make that magical Cinderella run to get to the championship game. That’s just part of the national character. Being the better team on paper is less important than winning in the end, head to head.
Fans of the “beautiful game” elsewhere tend to see it differently. They, too, want results on the field over analytical team strength. But they are more apt to view results over an entire season as having greater importance than tournament performance.
San Jose and Los Angeles clearly are not comparable to Manchester United. No argument there. But neither are most teams in the EPL.
If we are going to pursue the relegation question, then we need to look at the teams currently straddling that line in EPL standings. At the moment, those teams are Southampton and Wigan Athletic. However Southampton is only a point behind Sunderland and has a game in hand.
It’s a coin toss, but let's use Sunderland and Wigan Athletic for comparisons.
We will “baseline” on San Jose and Los Angeles rosters for the end of the 2012 season (postseason moves don't count) and compare those to the current rosters for these two EPL teams that are striving to avoid relegation in the ongoing 2012-13 season.
Minding the Nets
The English teams open a lead in this comparison with their keepers.
Wigan Athletic’s frame is protected by Omani keeper Ali Al-Habsi. He’s not just the class of this four-team group. While a dark horse, he could be in the running for best of the two leagues, at least in terms of shot-stopping ability.
Al-Habsi is on loan from Bolton. How Bolton could let this guy wander away from them like that is truly baffling from outside the situation. Whether it’s recording clean sheets or stopping penalty kicks, Al-Habsi nearly single-handedly kept Wigan out of relegation last season.
Sunderland’s dynamic duo, Simon Mignolet and Keiren Westwood, are both solid keepers. Though MLS has some fine keepers of its own, most American clubs would be happy to have either of them.
Mignolet has 12 caps with the Begium senior team, and Westwood has 14 with Ireland.
Jon Busch is the 36-year-old starter for San Jose. Busch’s best season was 2008, when he was named MLS keeper of the year and part of the league’s Best XI. He had a single appearance with the USMNT during a 2005 friendly.
The Galaxy’s Josh Saunders is sound but has never been seen as more than serviceable in MLS. He made a single appearance with the U-23 U.S. team, but since then he has appeared twice for Puerto Rico’s senior team.
Sunderland widens the gap with defense.
With backs like Wes Brown, Phil Bardsley and John O’Shea, and a bunch of English and Irish caps between them, neither of these two MLS teams nor anyone in the American league can compare on paper.
Add in a young Danny Rose and fan-favorite Carlos Cuellar, and you have the defensive foundation for a team that arguably should be higher on the EPL table.
The Galaxy, in comparison, have Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, Todd Dunivant and Sean Franklin, with seven USMNT caps between them.
Gonzalez in only four seasons with the Galaxy has been named Rookie of the Year, Defender of the Year, MLS Cup MVP and one of the league’s Best XI twice. He is a rising star, potentially both in club and international terms.
But as impressive as those accomplishments are, for context place them next to the resume of Sunderland’s Brown, with 23 caps for England, and 232 appearances with Manchester United.
Wigan Athletic’s back line features Honduran international Maynor Figueroa and Scottish international Gary Caldwell. Add in Ivan Ramis, who played on Spanish national youth teams, and Paraguayan international Antolin Alcaraz, and you have a respectable club defensive unit in general.
By EPL standards, however, Wigan Athletic’s defense is suspect.
If you still have that coin handy, toss it to determine whether Los Angeles or Wigan Athletic have stronger defenders on paper.
The San Jose Earthquakes this year lived by the defensive mantra of just making sure they scored more than the other team. That approach amazingly won them the Supporters’ Shield, but it doesn’t work often and San Jose had their share of lucky results along the way.
The Earthquakes have a handful of serviceable MLS defenders, like Victor Bernardez and Jason Hernandez. But San Jose’s immediate postseason moves tell the story. That club signed three veteran defenders from the re-entry draft.
Los Angeles strikes back with midfielders.
Two of the Galaxy-designated players are Landon Donovan and David Beckham, even if Beckham has announced he's leaving the team. However, L.A. is deeper than that, with under-recognized contributions from Juninho and Mike Magee.
Beckham, though older and less mobile, brings game experience from Manchester United and Real Madrid. And even his strongest detractors acknowledge the former England captain remains lethal on free kicks.
Donovan impressed while on loan to Bayern Munich and even more so at Everton. But fans who understand his importance to MLS knew a transfer wasn’t likely so long as Donovan was on contract stateside.
San Jose led MLS in scoring. The Earthquakes are more than Golden Boot Chris Wondolowski. Statistics say they were a team of playmakers in 2012.
While the focus was on Wondo and his chase of the league scoring record, the Earthquakes fielded a balanced and unpredictable attack. A full 12 players recorded multiple assists this year. Midfielder Marvin Chavez, a mainstay for the Honduras national team, led the pack with 13.
San Jose’s midfield does not get the respect it deserves, at least in attack phase.
Another point of direct comparison between the leagues can be found here as well. Center attacking mid Simon Dawkins is on loan to the Earthquakes from Tottenham.
The Jamaican has never made an appearance with the Spurs (after being loaned to Leyton Orient and San Jose), but has 53 appearances in two seasons with the Earthquakes. Tottenham, however, is not living in fear of relegation.
Sunderland’s midfield does not have the same on-paper pedigree as its defensive unit.
Sebastian Larsson is Sunderland’s answer to Beckham as his side’s free-kick specialist. He is considered one of the more dangerous on set kicks in the EPL.
At wing, Sunderland will play defender Rose, who like Dawkins is on loan from Tottenham. And James McLean is a 22-year-old Irish international who also shows a ton of promise at winger.
Wigan Athletic has quality but not standout middies.
Jordi Gomez, a Spaniard who played on his country’s U-17 team, adds some scoring punch with 10 goals over the last three and a half years. Irish international James McCarthy, a native of Scotland but with Irish family ties, could be a rising star. And fellow midfielder Jean Beausejour, a Chilean international, is another playmaker.
The edge here goes to Los Angeles. It might be more than an edge.
Keane, who is still only 32, has found the net an amazing 189 times in senior club play. He also is the leading scorer for Ireland with 54 international goals.
Edson Buddle joined Keane up top for the Galaxy in 2012. Buddle has been an MLS journeyman as well as a U.S. international. An earlier history of unfortunately timed injuries limited his role on the national team.
Up the coast from Los Angeles, attack is synonymous with San Jose’s Wondolowski. Wondo tied the MLS scoring record with 27 goals in 2012. However, Earthquake forwards Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon also are solid.
Wondo has won two Golden Boots, lost a tiebreaker for a third, was named to the league’s Best XI twice, and this year added MVP honors.
Sunderland’s big gun is Scottish international Steven Fletcher. Fletcher was a standout at Burnley before coming to Sunderland.
Frazier Campbell adds speed as well as versatility, playing up top for Sunderland or on either wing.
Leading Wigan Athletic in scoring this season is Arouna Kone, a quality striker from the Ivory Coast. Latics fans also look for production from 23-year-old Franco di Santo. Di Santo this year had a first appearance with Argentina’s senior team.
Comparing MLS and EPL teams is a bit like comparing apples and carburetors. The situations in which they exist are as different as the time of year in which they play.
An English football club enjoys the type of fan support that is more akin to American NFL franchises. Because of that support, and the revenue that comes with it, EPL teams operate on a different financial plane.
Consider the following data on team average salaries, as reported in May 2012.
Sunderland pays its players an average (converted from pounds) of $2.4 million. Wigan Athletic’s average player salary is $1.8 million.
The MLS clubs have more modest average salaries of $500,000 (Los Angeles) and $100,000 (San Jose).
If an MLS team had EPL-like support, obviously it could compensate its players better, which would allow bolstering the roster with stronger players.
Much is made of the grueling nature of an EPL season. Whether it is any more grueling than other leagues is a subjective matter.
Los Angeles in 2012 competed in 49 games, between league play, domestic and confederation tournaments, and then finally with the MLS Playoffs. Sunderland, in comparison, only played in 45 matches during the 2011-12 football year.
But consider that MLS teams are playing for a spot in the playoffs. A team like San Jose in 2012 had a pretty good idea for much of the season it would qualify. Los Angeles, in contrast, had to struggle down the stretch.
One result of this playoff approach may be differing levels of play intensity. In hockey, conventional wisdom holds that playoff defense is far more intense than regular season defense. Perhaps this happens in all playoff-structured leagues.
As an aside, another piece of NHL conventional wisdom is that wide open and high scoring teams from the regular season tend not to survive long in the playoffs, once they hit the higher intensity defensive play. Now think back on what happened to San Jose in MLS this year.
EPL teams fight for every notch on the table. The top notch of course has its honors. Above a certain level, and it’s off to the UEFA Champions League the next year. Below a certain level, there’s relegation to the less-celebrated English League Championship ranks.
(For those who don’t speak British, Championship is the second level, followed by a third level, which is called League One. Would you expect anything different from the land of Monty Python?)
There may be something more grueling in this English and European approach to regular season games. But the first point stands that if Los Angeles and San Jose were in the EPL, both would have resources to bolster their rosters accordingly.
The MLS teams, even with their lesser budgets, are comparable to these EPL teams. Los Angeles on paper appears fairly even with Sunderland, as does San Jose to Wigan Athletic.
The above points suggest that Los Angeles or San Jose, and especially San Jose with its 2012 defense, would struggle to avoid EPL relegation, as Wigan has for several years.
At best, either could be seen as having lower-level EPL qualities, but a more sober view might conclude a wing and a prayer would be required for Los Angeles and San Jose to avoid relegation from the EPL to the Championship ranks.
Presumably, this would also be the case in the handful of Europe's other truly “premier” leagues.
Maybe the truly amazing aspect of this is we are talking about an American league that is only 16 years old, and built on a fraction of the financial resources some older leagues enjoy, yet attempting to make this comparison at all.
That alone sounds like a win for MLS.
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