The continued growth of Major League Soccer has been encouraging having grown to 24 teams with three expansion teams in the pipeline as the league enters its 23rd season. While parity has made each season exciting, the league runs the risk of losing that with some of its recent changes.
A Balanced League
People will always debate the quality of play in MLS, but the league’s salary cap has generally forced teams to make tough financial decisions and go through cycles of success. Real Salt Lake, DC United and the LA Galaxy were the class of the league in the 2000s, but age and the salary cap have allowed franchises like Seattle, Portland and the New York Red Bulls to pull ahead.
For all the criticism of the league’s lack of promotion and regulation, the format has allowed teams stability in order to bounce back quickly from a bad season. Often times when teams in the UK get promoted to the Prem, that first season is sometimes just fighting to avoid going right back down via relegation. We’ve also seen it go the other way with Portland in 2016 and Toronto in 2018 failing to make the playoffs the year immediately after winning the MLS cup.
Ever since the LA Galaxy won back-to-back cups in 2011 and 2012, seven different clubs have won the MLS Cup. Of the current 24 franchises, only DC United and the Galaxy have won more than two.
Potential Issues With Growth
The league will have 27 teams in 2021, and while that is common in American leagues, it’s a bit unusual in soccer because you can run the risk of diluting the talent pool.
The designated player rule that allows teams to pay select players more than the league maximum has allowed teams to bring in elite talent from abroad. This used to be aging players from La Liga or the Premier League such as David Beckham or Didier Drogba. Some teams are still going after aging European stars or discounts of players looking for a retirement home but wealthier teams such as Atlanta United and Sounders FC are able to pay high transfer fees for younger talent.
Big change in 2019
The most recent change may have the biggest effect on parity with the newly implemented single-elimination playoff format. The MLS playoffs have been a crapshoot. Rarely has the team with the best regular season won the tournament; in fact, only once in the past eight years has the winner of the Supporters Shield (Best regular-season record) won the MLS Cup that same year (Toronto in 2017).
The league felt it devalued the regular season to give the lower-seeded teams a home game in an aggregate system because those teams would often get a win at home and then bunker in defensively for the return game to the higher-seeded team. The Portland Timbers were just third in the west when it won in 2015; the Sounders were also third in the west when they won in 2016 and Portland almost pulled off a second Cup in 2018 even though they finished just fifth in the West winning three series as a lower seed before falling to Atlanta United in the final.
While the MLS should continue seeking ways to improve its standard of play, you definitely hope the league can do it without taking away what has made it so exciting in the postseason.