Major League Soccer is similar to other US based sports leagues in that it chooses to employ a robust playoff within a closed system while the bottom finishing teams get rewarded with additional assets to help them the next year. This means, just like those other sports, there is less emphasis on the regular season week in week out while also muddying the meaningfulness of the table / standings.
The recent example of this would be how Crew SC finished above the New England Revs over the course of a long season only to see themselves crushed in the playoffs. Of course there are other examples of this over the last five years: The Colorado Rapids back in 2010 (7th on final table) are one, along with the 2012 (finishing 9th) and 2013 (8th) Houston Dynamo teams that did just enough to get into the playoffs and sneak into the MLS Cup final.
It's part of the league and something the brain trust likes, but it comes at a cost - both in quality / intensity of regular season play as well as the competitive integrity of games between teams towards the bottom of the table the back half of the season.
All this has me constantly asking - Exactly what is success in MLS? More importantly, where and when can fans of the sport of soccer truly see the best players and the best teams playing at 100% in this league?
What you see above is total wage spend by team since 2010. Each color represents a different year and below each city name is notable team accomplishment in that time. Since I'm looking at aggregate wages, I left off any expansion team that popped up in the time frame (2010-14).
What the chart shows is that most teams have been involved or have achieved something in the past five years. The reason I've included wages in this post is to illustrate more clearly who actually wins.
My accomplishment list is basically making the MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield and the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. The filled in shapes represent the winner of each one of those things over the past five years.
DEFINING TEAM ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Over the years I've found my self trying to assign value to where a team finishes during any given season. It can be a bit of a moving target for a league like Major League Soccer because a myriad of things but mainly it's expansion - which means we get format changes - but there are accomplishments that can get pinned down.
Here is what I've boiled it down to:
1. Winning the Supporters' Shield
2. MLS Cup Winner
3. Runner-Up to Supporters' Shield
4. MLS Cup Runner-Up
5. Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Winner
6. Top 4 Finish, Combined Regular Season Table
7. Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Runner-Up
What I've thrown out is Playoff Appearances and Conference Winners (although, "Top 4" covers that). I go back and fourth on where MLS Cup Runner Up falls because MLS playoffs is where the intensity rises to a good level and we see the best out of players.
Nevertheless, SS runner up wins out for me. Usually, towards the end of season, we see 2 or 3 teams really going for it. It shows, especially with more teams, the depth of quality a team has. I'm also wanting to reward teams that build in this deeply satisfying way. More quality players, better the soccer week in, week out.
A quick note on Playoffs in MLS: If you follow the league you probably notice people throwing out percentage of teams that make postseason. Like... NBA has x% that makes it, NFL y% and so on. It's a mistake to look at it that way. Yes, MLS will be letting 12 of 20 teams in but it's not so much the % and more just the number of markets. MLS needs 12 markets to stay with the league an extra month. NFL has smallest % that makes it in but it's still 12 (usually gigantic) markets. NBA has 16, NHL 15 and so on.
Playoffs are certainly an achievable goal for MLS teams, but ultimately it's a poor measurement of excellence or accomplishment and why it gets left off my list.
Lastly, the CONCACAF Champions League is getting left of, for obvious reasons. Salt Lake played in the 2010-11 final but that was due to their performance the year previous (outside my scope).
EXPANSION TEAMS (2010-14)
Vancouver Whitecaps (2011), Portland Timbers (2011) and Montreal Impact (2012) have been excluded because I'm looking at total spend and they have a few years missing. Mildly interesting is that only the Portland Timbers meet my list of team accomplishments in this time frame anyway (on Top 4 Finish).
FINDING TOP TEAMS QUICKLY
What jumps off my little chart up there is that out of a possible 15 filled in shapes (winners of the three domestic Cups), 10 have been won by the top four wage spenders in the last five years. There are other ways to cut things, so... Having a little fun here, let's take 100 points and divide it up between my list of accomplishments.
35 PTS - Winning the Supporters' Shield
20 PTS - MLS Cup Winner
15 PTS - Runner-Up to Supporters' Shield
10 PTS - MLS Cup Runner-Up
10 PTS - Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Winner
5 PTS - Top 4 Finish, Combined Regular Season Table
5 PTS - Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Runner-Up
SCORE : TEAM - Wage in millions $
145 : LA - $61mm (by a long shot)
85 : SEA - 32 (yeah)
75 : KC - 17 (new investors, motivated. Besler, Zusi)
45 : RSL - 17 (amazing what they have done)
45 : NY - 64 (well, well, well)
35 : SJ - 16 (a magical season, got them a new stadium)
20 : COL - 16 (last success of the "old ways")
20 : DC - 18
20 : DAL - 19 (the HSG!)
20 : HOU - 17 ("Slightly Above Avg" by Houston Dynamo)
10 : NE - 19 (Jermaine Jones)
5 : CHI - 20 (too much change)
5 : PHI - 18 (bad operator / investors)
5 : CLB - 16 (new investor things looking up)
5 : PDX - 16 (expansion team)
0 : TOR - 41 (it ain't the money, or the players)
0 : CHV - 15 (no longer a pro soccer team)
0 : VAN - 18 (expansion team)
0 : MTL - 15 (expansion team)
With this list you can sort of work out how much winning one of my accomplishments costs.
Something for another post but if you strip out to winners only you see that it takes an average annual spend of $7.2 million to win the Supporters' Shield, $3.6 for the MLS Cup and $3.1 for the USOC.
...AS FOR CREW SC
The team finds itself at the bottom of lists and accomplishments anyway you slice the last half decade. 2014 was a great start for the new investors, front office and coaching staff. I do see the team rising out of the bottom half but it will take investment. Not only in players but in facilities and maintaining an experienced, talented and motivated staff.
On the surface we know that teams that spend the most generally see success more. It happens all over the world. Nothing new. The difference with Major League Soccer is that spending is controlled centrally. The teams you see in the chart that spend more do so at the permission of the league. In regards to that, it's easy to see that every team south of Seattle on my chart plays by a different set up rules.
Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake have risen above the "other half" but how many times will this happen in the future if budgetary and roster rules stay the same as the league expands? How competitively fair and honest is it if things stay the same over the next five years?
Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or need an further clarification you can email me at email@example.com or find me on twitter @helltownbeer.