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MLS: Where Money Doesn’t Always Buy Happiness


While the rest of the football world is spiraling in the money game, America’s Major League Soccer proves that having a lot of money doesn’t always bring you success. Jonathan Sigal proves his point in the article that follows.

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In many of the top leagues throughout the world there usually are a few teams that fans can bet on finishing near the top of the table. In the English Premier League, Manchester United and Chelsea are consistently in the running for Champions League spots, in Spain’s La Liga, Real Madrid and Barcelona represent the upper echelon as of late, and in Germany’s Bundesliga, Bayern Munich and Schalke are routinely in the top tier.

While these elite teams are fortunate enough to experience life comfortably away from the relegation zone, or even a mid-table finish, their similarities uniquely extend beyond their place in the standings. They also enjoy the spacious and deep pockets of their owner, sponsor, and commercial value, all of which allow them to attract the world’s premier players.

To put it simply, money talks and with the ability to furnish lucrative contracts, these teams seemingly shell out multi-million dollar deals left and right. This in turn virtually guarantees a top finish year in and year out, as teams with smaller budgets simply cannot attract the same level of player. Now, this can create a certain level of inequality among the teams, but altogether brings into the spotlight the intriguing concept of parity.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, parity conceptually refers to equality and the idea that everyone in play has a fair shot at what is at stake. Looking at the past winners and money-grabber’s of the world’s top leagues, it is overly apparent that parity just doesn’t exist. But, does it exist elsewhere?

As a matter of fact, it is thriving in a place where football is feverishly on the upswing, budgets are meticulously managed, and diamonds in the rough make up squads rather than superstars: America’s Major League Soccer. MLS recently completed its 20th season, but unlike its international counterparts, the league is entirely dependent on the assurance that every team stands a shot when they take a field.

It is commonplace to see a team near the bottom of the table rally behind their fans and teammates to stun a team riding high in first or second place. While this commonly applies to regular season matches, it is increasingly present in MLS’ playoff structure too. In years past, 10 teams including five each from the Western and Eastern Conference, have participated in the winner-takes-all structure.

Teams who fare better during the regular season are seeded higher and receive home-field advantage, while those who do not perform as well get a lower seed and are forced to battle on the road. Even when the stakes are higher in this type of match, parity still flourishes and is an engrained element of the league. One has to look no further than the recent champions of the MLS playoffs to see the uniformity shine through.

In 2008 the Columbus Crew emerged as champions, in 2009 it was Real Salt Lake’s turn, and in 2010 it was the Colorado Rapids who took home the trophy. In all three instances the winning team was a lower seed who few thought could come anywhere near the title. But, just as it is MLS’ nature, the doubters were proven wrong and parity won on the day.

While this phenomenon manifests itself through the on the field product, it also resonates in another spectrum of the game: money. Just as is the case in any other league around the world, there are bound to be certain teams in MLS who are more profitable, and in turn can afford more expensive players. Unlike many other situations throughout the world though, a deep pocket does not guarantee efficiency in MLS. Let’s break down some of the numbers from MLS’ most recent campaign, the 2014 season.

Parity1The above graphic depicts the yearly wage value of each MLS Eastern Conference team and displays them in a fashion that shows who spends more. As evidenced above, six of the nine teams don’t even break the five million dollar barrier, while one barely breaches it, and two set themselves far ahead of the rest of the field.

Looking at how the regular season panned out, those who set themselves ahead financially did not cement a spot in the playoffs. Toronto FC (TFC), who dished out big-time on Michael Bradley and Jermaine Defoe and had a wage budget north of 17 million dollars, was not one of the Eastern Conference’s five playoff representatives.

Moving from left to right on the graph, the New York Red Bulls (NYR) barely squeaked into the playoff picture despite freely spending on stars such as Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry. Next in line, the New England Revolution (NER) had a relatively small wage budget of roughly six million dollars, which was significantly boosted by the large contract of Jermaine Jones. The rest of the team’s contracts were nothing to brag about, but the Revs ultimately represented the Eastern Conference in MLS Cup.

While the Revs financial situation is a fine example of parity, the bottom two teams of DC United (DCU) and Columbus Crew SC (CSC) exemplify it in the finest fashion. The teams had two of the smaller wage budgets in the conference and league, but they defied expectations and finished near the top of the table.

In MLS’ Eastern Conference this concept of parity is glaringly evident, but it also existed in MLS’ Western Conference. Below is the how the Western Conference stacked up in terms of wages in the 2014 season.

Parity2

Now, parity in the West unfolded to a lesser degree, but it is without a doubt there. Leading the charge in terms of wages was the Los Angeles Galaxy (LAG) and Seattle Sounders (SEA). These two clubs had players such as Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Robbie Keane, and Landon Donovan on their books. With that degree of talent and money influx, the Galaxy and the Sounders understandably were the preeminent members of the West in 2014.

However, when one moves down the table MLS’ calling card of parity glowingly radiates. The Portland Timbers (POR) were big spenders in 2014 with players like Gaston Fernandez and Liam Ridgewell under contract, but they failed to even make the playoffs. Following the Timbers, both FC Dalls (FCD) and Real Salt Lake (RSL) made the playoffs with their modest wage budgets, but parity is again apparent in the subsequent teams.

The San Jose Earthquakes (SJE) had the sixth highest wage budget in the West, but they also failed to make the playoffs. This event comes as a glaring shock, as the Earthquakes won the Supporter’s Shield two seasons ago and have one MLS Cup twice in their existence. But, just as parity ensures, money is not always directly aligned with success.

To make one last point, the cheap budgets of the Colorado Rapids (COL) and now defunct Chivas USA (CHV) resulted in dismal seasons, but such was not the case for the team one spot ahead of them. The Vancouver Whitecaps (VAN) had a budget just below four million dollars, but managed to get into the playoffs through making the most of every dollar spent and numerous sage acquisitions.

Looking at all the evidence laid forth, MLS is a land where parity thrives and flows through the veins of the players, front offices, and fans. Unlike situations where the Chelsea’s, Real Madrid’s, Bayern Munich’s, and Juventus’ of the world can splash cash to win a trophy, MLS teams are safe-guarded by the idea that a smaller budget often leads to success.

Teams such as the New England Revolution, Columbus Crew, Real Salt Lake, and Vancouver Whitecaps are premier examples of this, as they thrive in their smaller markets through financial wherewithal and cohesiveness. Contrastingly, teams who spend big like Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls do not always perform at a level one would expect from their wages.

All in all, parity is an interesting concept that can contribute to a healthier and more balanced league and there is no better example of this than America’s MLS. Every league doesn’t have to follow suit and create an equality-based system, but this concept does ensure that teams cannot buy their way to silverware. Plus, who doesn’t love an underdog story?


Written by Jonathan Sigal

Jonathan Sigal

Jon is an aspiring sports journalist who works for a multitude of digital platforms and writes an American soccer column for Outside of the Boot. He also is an avid Arsenal fan and dreams of covering the World Cup one day.
Jonathan Sigal

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