Canada Markets closed

Why are MLS races often so tight? Examining some contrasts with Europe’s soccer system

·6 min read

Over its most recent five-game stretch, second-place Sporting Kansas City has dropped six of an available 15 points in Major League Soccer competition.

The team currently ranked ahead of Sporting KC, the Western Conference-leading Seattle Sounders, has dropped four of 15 points, while the team directly below, the Colorado Rapids, has coughed up seven.

Granted, both Sporting KC and Colorado have had to play the Sounders during that span — Seattle beat the former and tied the latter, but also lost to the 11th-place Houston Dynamo last weekend.

So what is it about MLS that so often sees its best teams falter when they should be hitting their stride as the playoffs approach? It’s an important and fascinating question, because such stumbles contribute to all-out fistfights (metaphorically speaking) for postseason seeding.

Teams apparently well-positioned to lock up top seeds muck everything up by losing games they shouldn’t, while lower-seeded teams stay in the hunt by securing wins or ties that, on paper, at least, should’ve been well out of reach.

It’s chaos — great for fans of no particular side, but often frustrating or heartbreaking when it’s your team that’s getting bumped to a poorer seed.

“I don’t know — it’s, like, the most MLS thing ever though, right?” Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia said with a laugh on Friday.

It’s only funny as long as you win, which Sporting KC will try to do in yet another game against the Sounders, on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Central Time, at Lumen Field in Seattle.

While we get ready for that game, here are some thoughts from Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes as to why the best teams in the league too often seem to stumble when the stakes are at their highest.

The salary cap

First off ...

“One is parity: salary cap changes the world,” Vermes said. “Go ahead and put Man City, Liverpool, Man United, go put them in that world and we’ll see how things change within all those teams over the course of the year.”

That’s a common answer and one that separates U.S. sports from leagues around the rest of the world, especially in regards to soccer.

Manchester United is England’s largest spender, paying out a staggering $311,757,514 per year in player wages. That dwarfs Premier League newcomer Brentford, which ranks last in the league at $17,602,868 annually.

To do the math for you, that’s a difference of $294,154,646 per year between the two clubs.

On this side of the pond, Toronto FC tops the charts with a more modest annual payroll of $26,925,850. Nashville SC brings up the rear at $5,050,000.

That’s still a $21,875,850 difference from top to bottom, but it’s significantly less than the $88,039,377 margin between Man U and Chelsea, whose current annual payroll ranks second in the Premier League.

But both of those teams are consistently among the top in England.

In the U.S.? Free-spending Toronto is 13th in the Eastern Conference standings, while Nashville is sitting pretty in second. Sporting KC ranks fifth in MLS’ “payroll standings,” at $9,971,000, but that’s only a little over a million dollars more than 11th-place Orlando City.

The tighter gap between MLS teams’ respective payrolls seems to correlate to the generally even level of competition across the league, even now, as we head into crunch time.

In the U.S., we call that parity.

The playoff system

Vermes also noted the different competition structure in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world: The U.S. loves its playoff system, while most other leagues worldwide use promotion and relegation — no playoffs.

“You’re in England and you’re in 16th place and you’re going, ‘Yay, that’s great.’ American fans wouldn’t be going, ‘Yay, it’s great that we’re in 16th place,’” Vermes said. “You’re doing that (in England) because it’s the setup, it’s the promotion and relegation. For us, it’s playoffs, so that’s what you’re trying to get to.”

In recent weeks, Sporting has lost to the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 and the Rapids have lost to surging Real Salt Lake 3-1.

Similarly, in the final five games of the abridged 2020 season, Sporting KC dropped five points down the stretch, while second-place Seattle and third-place Portland both dropped seven.

Sticking with England and the three teams Vermes mentioned, let’s look at the final 10 games for Liverpool, Man U and Manchester City in the 2020-21 season. They finished as the top three teams last season.

In Liverpool’s final 10 games — 30 available points — the Merseyside team dropped just four points down the stretch, regardless of the competition.

Manchester City dropped nine points over the same stretch, but only six against non-top-four teams (a 2-1 loss to Chelsea excluded). Manchester United dropped 10 points, but only seven to opponents not among the top four (a 4-2 loss to Liverpool excluded).

“What happens is these teams that are playing (in England), they’re also competing for something — and that is they’re competing for something else,” Vermes said. “They would like to either be a professional soccer player, they want to be back with that team next year, they want to show that they’re deserved there. Maybe it’s a new coach, maybe it’s an interim coach and he wants to show that he should be there.”

Vermes seems to be on the money as to why MLS is one of the most exciting leagues in the world when the games really matter. And Kansas City will have to buck these trends in order to claim the No. 1 seed in the West.

Here are the final MLS games of the season for the top three teams in the West (all are against Western Conference opposition unless noted):

Seattle Sounders (1st place, 30 games played, 58 points):

Home vs Sporting KC (2nd, 52 pts)

Away at LAFC (9th, 36 pts)

Home vs L.A. Galaxy (5th, 45 pts)

Away at Vancouver (7th, 43 pts)

Sporting KC (2nd place, 29 games played, 52 points):

Away at Seattle (1st, 58 pts)

Home vs L.A. Galaxy (5th, 45 pts)

Away at Minnesota (6th, 44 pts)

Away at Austin FC (13th, 25 pts)

Home vs Real Salt Lake (8th, 42 pts)

Colorado Rapids (3rd place, 30 games played, 52 points):

Home vs Portland (4th, 46 pts)

Away at New England (1st in East, 69 pts)

Away at Houston (11th, 30 pts)

Home vs LAFC (9th, 36 pts)

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting