With J Hutcherson — In the land of parity, what would it mean if a Major League Soccer club actually dominated the regular season? You can play with the definition of 'dominate,' but that hasn't really happened since the Los Angeles Galaxy finished ten points better than anyone else in 1998. Tampa Bay finished nine points up on the rest of the League in '96, but both of those seasons had the shootout to settle ties.
Since then, a dominant regular season usually means six points, also known as two wins. More often than not, the rest of the League slots in nicely behind the front runners. If there's a big gap, it's usually at the bottom of the table.
We don't really get that from the major European leagues. There, the major gaps are normally closer to the top. It's a quick understanding of what it means to be truly among the elite.
Looking at the current Premier League standings, there's a five point difference between 2nd and 3rd, seven points between 3rd and 4th, and seven between 8th and 9th. Last season, those six to nine point gulfs separated 4th from 5th and 6th from 7th.
A league down, Newcastle are nine points clear at the top of the table. 2nd and 3rd are separated by 14 points. Wolves won the Championship in 2008-09 with a seven point lead.
In Serie A, Roma and Inter are separated by a point at the top, but there's a six point gap between 2nd and 3rd, and another seven points between 3rd and 4th. La Liga, Barcelona is a point up on Real Madrid at the top, but 24 points separates 2nd from 3rd.
What's different about this season in MLS is 16 teams. At least a couple of them have already given us enough indication that they're not going to surprise anybody. A couple more look set to implode, taking out whatever chances they had of competing. That should do two things, separate the worst teams in the League and provide a lot of points for teams higher up the table.
Should we actually get one or two teams this season capable of really taking advantage, MLS could end up with it's own gap between the true powers and everybody else. I'm going to go ahead and argue that from a competitive standpoint that might be every bit as important as parity.
There are those who want to sell the League's promise on every game being worth your time. Most sports fans see through that, and the attendance and viewer numbers haven't responded to season after season of tight finishes for playoff slots. They haven't responded at all to the playoffs, still up there on the list of trouble spots when most clubs see their attendance decrease for their most important games.
Instead, the League could use a team or two that helps define marquee relative to scale in this League. We know that requires winning, not just high profile players. With expansion both in terms of number of teams and participation in other competitions, it also requires real squad management and prioritizing a schedule.
No team in MLS has shown they can do this. Enough of them are still hanging on to simply making the playoffs as success, alongside dismissing finishes in other competitions as not really wort their time. What's needed is a team or two that take the relatively small squads and overlapping competitions as a challenge rather than a problem and respond accordingly.
That starts by redefining what it means to have a successful MLS season. Dropping points isn't ok. Playing for the tie when you're the better team isn't a defensible position. Finishing third in your Conference when you should've been second doesn't get shrugged off as you turn your attention to the playoffs. The top clubs need to lead by example here, showing the rest of the League what success can mean. I would put that at around ten points at the top of the table.
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