(Note: Rankings of the wealthiest soccer clubs are courtesy of Forbes.)
There is little doubt that Major League Soccer is growing in popularity. Paul Kennedy of SoccerAmerica.com reported in April that through the first seven weeks of the season, attendance was up 16 percent across the league compared to last season. After nine weeks of the season, Kennedy reported that viewership of ESPN broadcasts of MLS matches is up 18 percent compared to 2014. Viewership of Fox Sports 1 matches is up 58 percent compared to matches on NBC Sports Network last season.
Clearly then, MLS is moving in the right direction.
This comes as a result of several factors. The expansion of the league into new markets desperate for soccer certainly plays a role in the above numbers. Increased and improved television coverage has made it easier and more enjoyable to watch the MLS from home. The quality of play in the league is constantly on the rise, as made apparent by the Montreal Impact's run to the CONCACAF Champions League Final, among other things.
But, as the 2015 MLS season continues, it is becoming more and more clear that one of the biggest factors in the success, excitement and growth of North America's premier soccer league is its sheer unpredictability, something that simply does not exist in European soccer.
A look at what this week's soccer was like in the United States and overseas makes this abundantly clear. MLS play opened on Wednesday with a 4-2 victory for struggling, injury-riddled Sporting KC over last season's Eastern Conference Champions, New England Revolution. On Friday, Columbus Crew, a trendy pick to be this year's Eastern Conference Champion, conceded a late equalizer at home against the Chicago Fire, a club currently outside of the playoff picture. The match ended in a 2-2 draw.
On Saturday, the madness continued. D.C. United, currently atop the Eastern Conference, only managed a point against New England, despite the Revolution being forced to play with nine men for over 30 minutes. Montreal, which entered the day as the worst team in the league, beat FC Dallas, the club atop the Western Conference. Colorado Rapids, the club at the bottom of the table in the west, beat Vancouver Whitecaps, who started the season as one of the hottest teams in MLS.
MLS had one more surprise in store on Sunday. The New York Red Bulls, third in the east, hosted the Philadelphia Union, who had only nine points through 12 matches. The Union had never won at Red Bull Arena, but pulled out a deserved 2-0 victory over the hosts, bringing the curtain down on a hectic and unpredictable week in MLS.
As Matthew Doyle of MLSSoccer.com pointed out:
In Europe, it was a different story. This weekend was the final weekend of the domestic seasons in most of the major European leagues—the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A, Germany's Bundesliga and France's Ligue 1.
The title in each of these leagues was already clinched coming into the week, with each league's winner being one of the giants of European soccer. In England, Chelsea clinched the title three weeks ago, as the early-season favorite and sixth-most valuable soccer club in world ran away with the Premier League. In its final game, Chelsea won 3-1 over Sunderland in a meaningless encounter.
In Spain, Barcelona had already clinched the La Liga title, doing just enough to beat out fellow superclub Real Madrid. Though Atletico Madrid won La Liga last year, one of Barcelona or Real Madrid have won the Spanish title in each other season since 2003-04. Barcelona and Real Madrid are the second and first-most valuable soccer clubs in the world, respectively.
Italy's Serie A still has another week to play, but the title race was essentially over before it started. Juventus currently leads second-place Roma by a staggering 19 points. Juventus is the ninth-most valuable soccer club in the world and the most valuable in Italy. On the pitch, a Juventus side made up largely of second-string players beat fourth-place Napoli 3-1.
In Germany, Bayern Munchen also had the domestic title wrapped up for weeks. The Bavarian giants celebrated their already clinched title with a 2-0 victory over mid-table FSV Mainz. Bayern is the fourth-most valuable soccer club in the world and most valuable in Germany.
Finally, in France, Paris Saint Germain closed out its season already knowing that it had won its domestic title as well. With a 3-2 victory over Reims, PSG stretched its final margin of victory to eight points over second-place Lyon. PSG is the 12th-most valuable club in the world and the most valuable in France.
That is a lot of information, so here are the main takeaways:
- In each of these five leagues, the final week of the season had no bearing on the title race.
- In all but one of these leagues (Spain), the title was ultimately decided weeks before the end of the season. Spain's title race, the only close one of the group, was between Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two richest clubs in the world.
- In three of these five leagues, the richest club in the country won the title. In England, the third-richest club in the country and sixth-richest club in the world, Chelsea, won the title. In Spain, Barcelona, the second richest club in Spain and in the world, won the title.
Ultimately, all of these statistics and facts point to one simple truth—European soccer is pretty predictable.
Now, I have included each club's ranking in the list of the most wealthy soccer clubs in the world because ultimately the difference between MLS and European leagues comes down to money. While there is no doubt that the money in top European leagues leads to better players and therefore better quality on the pitch, that quality is far from evenly distributed.
The disparity between the wealth of clubs in most European leagues is simply too great for middle-tier teams to overcome. Even the two biggest "surprises" in terms of league-winners in recent years came from relatively rich teams. Atletico Madrid, which beat out Barcelona and Real Madrid for the La Liga title last season, is the 16th-richest club in the world. Borussia Dortmund, which beat out Bayern Munchen in 2010-11 and 2011-12 for the Bundesliga title, is the 11th-richest club in the world.
The institution of Financial Fair Play rules may level the playing field to an extent, but if this season is anything to judge by, these rules simply will not have much of an effect. MLS, of course, has a salary cap, which is not used in European soccer.
This is not to say that the structure of the salary cap, designated-player rules or the discovery process, are perfect in MLS. For too long, the rules were shrouded in secrecy until this year MLS finally made public the rules for acquiring players and the salary cap.
These rules may well slow progress in the league, deterring players from coming to MLS because they may not have control over what team they end up with or may not be paid what they think they are worth. Similarly, a team may be hesitant to sign a player with a high price tags unless the team is absolutely positive the player fits, because the team cannot afford to sink cap space into the wrong player.
At the very least, the structure put in place by MLS limits the amount of depth teams can have, particularly when playing against teams from other countries during the CONCACAF Champions League. Though MLS teams can pay designated players essentially any amount they wish, the combined salary of the rest of an MLS team's players must come in under the salary cap. So, though MLS teams may have better star power than many clubs in Mexico or Costa Rica, many of the teams from Liga MX or the Costa Rican Primera Division are better from top to bottom, as the results from CONCACAF Champions League matches have shown.
But, there is little doubt that week-to-week in MLS matches, the structure of the league makes for some of the most interesting and unpredictable soccer in the world. The idea that a Supporters' Shield (MLS' award for most regular-season points) race would ever be over weeks before the season is simply unheard of.
Since 2009, the highest number of points separating the Supporters' Shield winner and runner-up was four. The reality is that those races are tight because there are weekly surprises in MLS—unpredictable results during the long weeks of the regular season are what give birth to unexpected and exciting title races.
In Europe, such results just do not happen frequently enough for there to be multi-team races for the title on a regular basis. Even when such races occur, they are between teams that were always going to be title favorites because they have the most money, as is usual the case in Spain between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Conversely, MLS' most accomplished team, Los Angeles Galaxy, has not won a Supporters' Shield since 2011.
So, while Europe clearly has the best players and the highest-quality soccer, Major League Soccer has something that none of the top European leagues can claim—genuine unpredictable action week in and week out.