Soccer fans have been treated to the likes of European giants for decades. Think of the Manchester Uniteds, Real Madrids, and Bayern Munichs of the world. Even the Arsenals and Barcelonas of the world can make a claim to giant status. Even the new money teams like Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are trying to break into an elite group of European football.
However, with the money of these soccer mega clubs being thrown around like chocolate in the Hershey’s factory, it leaves up-and-coming clubs out to dry. Think of Southampton, the rising English club, who despite an unbelievable wealth of talent development, cannot break into the Champions League because they can’t afford to keep their best players. With this problem in place, it’s no wonder MLS has kept so close to its salary cap.
Partially due to the initial popularity of soccer in the United States and partially due to the preservation of competition in the league, MLS has employed a salary cap. The result? There are no MLS giants.
Despite the massive crowds in Seattle or the big money signings of New York and Los Angeles, MLS has kept the spending of its clubs under control, utilizing a CBA and salary cap to prevent what would be perceived as overspending. The result is likely the most competitive soccer league in the world.
At the beginning of every season, nearly every team has a shot at the playoffs (especially with Chivas USA gone) and about half of them have a chance at MLS Cup. Of the five European leagues with more representation at the World Cup than MLS (England, Spain, Italy, France, and Russia) not one of them can boast that kind of parity. Competitiveness has made MLS truly unique, but has come at a price.
The price of a salary cap league, especially with one battling as many competitive leagues as MLS, is the talent. Talented players simply don’t want to play for less money, and under current MLS salary rules, even the biggest clubs can’t afford to shell out the big bucks for all eleven players. Thus, while the competition might be a lot better domestically, the talent is definitely better overseas. There lies the disconnect for a lot of American soccer fans with MLS.
However, in the most talented leagues in Europe, while the talent is there, the parity does not exist. Just five teams have won the Premier League in its 22 year history, with one of those being the Blackburn squad of the early 90s that has had a disastrous fall from grace. In that same time, just six teams have won the German Bundesliga, though Bayern Munich has established in iron grip in the past few years. In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have won nearly double the league titles of all other teams combined. Yet, from a global branding standpoint, the most talented teams still rake in the cash, while MLS and its league of parity are left trying to escape their minor-league association.
While American sports fans repeatedly clamor for more evenness in professional sports leagues, utilizing salary caps, recruiting rules and luxury taxes to prevent teams from getting too rich or too good, ultimately, when it comes to our money, we spend it on the giants. Everyone loves to root against teams like the Yankees, the Lakers, Kentucky basketball, Alabama football, and half a dozen other teams across the American sporting landscape. Or we root for them, celebrating greatness of dominant teams. However, MLS has yet to establish that team and thus, has been left without a sect of the American soccer fan base. In order to win over the United States, MLS must create a giant, and with the current structure of the salary cap, that will be hard to do.