The Lalas Proclamation: Is MLS The Most Competitive League In the World?

On August 25th, basement-tenant-on-rent-control Chivas USA whupped up on the New York Red Bulls, 2-0. That would be the 2013 MLS Supporter Shield victorious Red Bulls.

On August 25th, basement-tenant-on-rent-control Chivas USA whupped up on the New York Red Bulls, 2-0. That would be the 2013 MLS Supporter Shield-winning Red Bulls.

Alex Olshansky does Alexi Lalas a solid…and contributes the column below….

Parity is a popular topic of conversation in MLS.

Because of league salary and roster rules, it has traditionally been very difficult for any team to consistently stay at the top. Similarly, unless you are Toronto FC, it is not unusual for teams to go from the bottom of the table one year to the top the next. Alexi Lalas famously (infamously? serendipitously? kidding..) proclaimed the league to be “the most competitive league in the world.”

Is he right? Is Lalas’s assertion on point?

To investigate, a representative group of 14 other leagues from around the world were tested on three key metrics that–it says here–are believed to be the best measures of league parity (or competitiveness… let’s consider them interchangeable).

Intra-Table Parity

To measure this, we looked at the standard deviation of points per game (PPG) for each league. In effect, this measures the variance in results across the league. A lower number means teams are more closely grouped towards the average, a higher number means more teams are further from the average (both good and bad).

Very interesting professor....

Very interesting professor….

Year Over Year Parity

This table is the average change in year over year points per game.

This measures how much results vary from year to year. The EPL obviously has a very low number in this metric as generally the top 5 teams have been the same for the past handful of years (as have the mid-table teams).

*It should be noted that this is only from one year’s worth of data, and likely would be different if looked at over multiple years.



The Haves (10%) vs. The Have Nots (90%)

Quite simply, this measures how much goal differential the top 10% of clubs in each league are responsible for–let’s call this The La Liga Conundrum.

A competitive league should not have the top couple teams hording all the results.

For example, look at the difference between who is responsible for the majority of the goal differential in the Bundesliga (Bayern/Dortmund) and MLS (Chivas USA/DC United).

Ze Germans are weak!

The Bundesliga is like MLS’s evil doppelganger dude!



The three factors above were weighted equally and assigned a standard deviation (either + or -) for each league and each metric.

Add them up and MLS is indeed the most competitive league in this 15 league sample. Interestingly, Brazil was not far behind. Of course, there are multiple ways one can measure parity and competitiveness, and this is just one of many approaches.

But for today Alexi Lalas …. you are correct, sir.


35 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by dekok on 2013/11/01 at 12:46 AM

    Its funny how the Netherlands is at the bottom of your stat, yet after 11 rounds this season 7 teams are within 1 point of the lead and 11 teams within 4.. Competitive much?


    • My analysis was only of one year’s worth of data. I’d expect the results to fluctuate from year to year. The Eredivisie might be competitive so far this year, but it is still really early. I don’t expect it to stay that close.


  2. Posted by KickinNames.... on 2013/11/01 at 5:54 AM

    Upon further analyis I’ve come up with my own conclusions. This was achieved by taking all of the above into account while also leaving room for the following variables:
    a) a comparative assessment of MLS uniform colors, juvenile Brit wannabe cheering sections and concession sales
    c)Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty
    d)amount of “Lex’s” income directly generated by Major League Soccer

    you come up with a numerical value that roughly predicts the veracity of any comment uttered by “Lex” at any given moment in time. From that value you then can apply a purely subjective context to the data and make the following assumption:

    Alexi Lalas is an ass….


    • Just because he’s an ass doesn’t mean he cant be right.

      Also, MLS hasn’t paid Alexi directly in several years. Alexi could be doing anything for ESPN including EPL if they wanted him do. Relax.


      • Posted by KickinNames.... on 2013/11/04 at 6:19 AM

        Umm..the fact that he is an ass and says dumb shit all of the time would ummm directly contribute to the fact that what he says is BS. I’m taking it that you have a problem with my analysis…?


        • Posted by john mosby on 2013/11/07 at 9:00 PM

          if you are really being honest, then alexi lalas is a smart guy, who made the most of it during and after his career. taking shots at the guy from the peanut gallery is a silly endeavor.


          • Posted by KickinNames.... on 2013/11/08 at 10:05 AM

            He absolutely has made the most of whatever opportunities that he has been afforded. But I’m not out here in the wilderness as someone who thinks that he spouts mostly patently inflammatory nonsense to get people to respond to him that have little to do with reality or good common sense.
            Frankly, doing an “analysis” of an Alexi Lalas “look at me I’m confrontational” statement is not a great use of electrons.
            And John M as the Peanut Gallery President I will of course defer to you as an expert on ridiculous opinions….


            • Posted by john mosby on 2013/11/08 at 4:44 PM

              you are welcome to state any of those ridiculous opinions, in defense of your own opinion, which seems to be to endlessly knock a US American soccer hero. and based on what?

            • Posted by KickinNames.... on 2013/11/10 at 6:01 PM

              Thanks Mrs Lalas. It was good hearing from you.

  3. Posted by Nate Redford (@SenordrummeR2) on 2013/11/01 at 10:53 AM

    Why wasn’t Mexico included in this analysis? I ask this because Mexico’s league is scattered in a similar geographic manner as MLS. How much does travel play into the parity equation?


    • I didn’t include any leagues with Clausura/Apertura. Obfuscates the analysis. I do think that geography is probably A factor, though not a large one.


  4. Posted by dth on 2013/11/01 at 11:01 AM

    I loved the competitiveness of the league this year — one of the rare times a 10-team playoff is close to making sense. Hopefully expansion doesn’t mean dilution, either in quality of the teams themselves on average, or in further dilution of the playoff pool (i.e more teams in the playoffs)


  5. Posted by Marco on 2013/11/01 at 11:23 AM

    Well yeah, if the league has average talent (which it does) and salary caps limit dynasties, there is no need for statistics to easily figure out top teams will vary year to year. I don’t consider that “competitive”. More “equal playing field”. When everything is equal, then yes competition is more open. But I like leagues with great teams for long periods and average to poor teams. That sort of “competition” is more interesting. Watching average teams compete for a title yearly is not entertaining.


    • Posted by joeyt360 on 2013/11/01 at 1:50 PM

      I don’t consider that “competitive”. More “equal playing field”.

      —-> Those are synonyms, in the sense that’s actually being discussed.

      “The juggle of sophistry consists, for the most part, in using a word in one sense in the premises, and in another sense in the conclusion.”
      — Coleridge


    • Posted by Kenpachi CG on 2013/11/04 at 8:16 AM

      It is stupid to have only two teams in any leagues to win trophies for long periods of time. Average teams? U don’t know the way sports are set up in America. The NBA, NFLare successful with competiveness. MLS is simply doing the same.


  6. Of course he’s right. When’s the last time you’ve heard of a league where a quarter of the teams still had a shot at the league best points total with 2 matches to go, and a fifth of them still did with one match to go?


    • How does the play-off system alter this? If you’ve already made the play-off, you saying that teams aren’t resting up for the post-season?

      MLS is basically two competitions in one – first part is making the play-offs, second part is a cup competition. The two require different skill sets; look at last season’s finalists, end their final league position. The small sample size of games in the post-season enables more teams to become ‘champions’.

      Just wait til MLS expands the number of teams until they achieve what they want, let the dust settle, and watch the big market teams have the most points at the end of the regular season – year after year.

      Lalas is correct right now. But we also know he’s an MLS snob to his detriment too.


      • “MLS is basically two competitions in one – first part is making the play-offs, second part is a cup competition. The two require different skill sets; look at last season’s finalists, end their final league position. The small sample size of games in the post-season enables more teams to become ‘champions’.”

        This basically describes almost all American professional sports leagues.

        It makes for more controversy, which the leagues like and encourage. .

        The EPL or Bundesliga champion, for example, is almost always , indisputably, the best team.


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/11/02 at 5:11 AM

          Yes Martin, perfectly aware that this is the system used within US sports. I was stating the bleeding obvious, after all. I was merely offering a potential explanation to Joey’s comment.

          Good to see you still like using speech marks.


          • “speech marks”?

            A Brit term no doubt? Interesting. You write as if there was something wrong with your approach. Needlessly defensive.

            One of the best things about, for example, the EPL champion is that they are “true” champions, proven over time, i.e. the entire length of the competition.

            Most other soccer champions, such as the World Cup or the Champions League and most of the American sports teams champions are “Cup competition champs” i.e. champions of one knockout game or a playoff series of seven games or less.

            The EPL champion is much less likely to be a team that has a hot run of games, like Chelsea was in the Champions League a few years ago.


      • Posted by Jared on 2013/11/08 at 9:57 AM

        I wouldn’t say being an MLS snob has been a detriment to Lalas at all. He continues to be paid pretty well for being an MLS snob. I’d be an MLS snob if ESPN/MLS would pay me to say that stuff too.


        • How can being so blatantly biased not be detrimental? People’s FQs are increasing year-on-year, and they’re going to see straight through his BS.


  7. Posted by surfndave on 2013/11/03 at 11:56 AM

    Absolutely great read. One confounding aspect of “competitive” not mentioned is the immense social pressure placed upon teams/players by their surrounding media, fanbase, and community at large. To assume equal social pressure to win at Bayern Munich versus NY Red Bull is unthinkable (Or, Sunderland versus Chivas USA perhaps). I absolutely enjoy watching MLS. At the same time, articulating the most “competitive” league in the world should involve more than just in-game parametrics. Waves aren’t happening, dude.


  8. MLS is the best league in the world and that is a fact. The competitiveness of the league and also presentation or facilities make it so. This also takes into account for me the safety and level of corruption or lack there of in these leagues for players, teams, and fans as well.


  9. Posted by Roy Gathercoal on 2013/11/04 at 5:30 PM

    Let’s take the scenario out of football for a moment and into US NCAA football, Div 1.

    This will help illuminate by removing temporarily many of the other confounding factors that might get smuggled in to this discussion, such as “I like being a Eurosnob” or “I played on a top team in my league when a kid.”

    Would you say that it is more enjoyable to watch, say, Alabama play Furman College (perhaps a six-touchdown margin) or to watch West Virginia play USC (either)?

    The thing that makes a game most enjoyable will be first off, whether you are a fan of one of the participants (especially the victor), then secondly, whether the outcome is in some doubt. It would be entertaining to watch Bayern play Real Madrid (which is why champion’s leagues exist); not so much watching Bayern play Nottingham Forest or even Chivas.

    Parity does make the league more interesting and will sell more tickets over the long run. It is expensive to play games in empty stadia all over the country. If a team does not have a reasonable chance of having a good season, say one year out of ten, then the fan base will suffer.

    In places where football is the only sport in town and where sport is intensely integrated into culture, that is not such a bad thing; small towns in England will always attract some fans.

    In markets where the sports dollar is competitive, where the local football team must compete against US football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse and baseball–plus all of the college teams in each sport and high school events, a sport which only occasionally offers a competitive game will falter.

    The US is not Europe. Europe isn’t even Europe. And the mega-star team is often not economically feasible. If not for certain practices born out of national pride, the fate of the Rangers would be common. Wasn’t it Barcelona that just announced with triumph that they had reduced their team debt to something approaching half a billion dollars?

    This is not a sustainable model. Leave the star-studded teams for the world cup. Let the champions of each league fight it out. But let us not encourage a system which leaves most of the stadia half-full most of the time, and which means economic disaster for those both at the top and the bottom.


  10. Posted by primo on 2013/11/10 at 2:42 PM

    Quality above all else. Who cares about parity when the product is unwatchable. Most of the time I’m dieing inside begging the team with the ball to make the right pass at theright time or cursing at the players who take the meaningless extra touches just to get the ball on thier dominant foot when thier first touch should have done that for them.


    • Posted by Roy Gathercoal on 2013/11/13 at 8:49 AM

      Interesting. Would you consider EPL bottom-of-the-table games to be unwatchable? Or Series A games among the bottom quarter of teams? And are there teams whose play in the MLS you do consider to be watchable? Or are all European teams wonderful and all MLS teams crappy?

      What about Western hemisphere teams, say in Mexico or South America? Is a Flumenco v. Paulistano game watchable? Or say a Tijuana/Aguascaliente match?

      What about World Cup qualifying games? Is a Malta/Andorra game watchable? How about a Spain/Albania matchup?

      I am trying to get a feel for what you consider to be watchable–whether it is team quality or geography.


  11. Posted by SamT on 2013/11/11 at 8:43 AM

    Thanks, Alex. Nice analysis.

    When I see a list of leagues where Top 5 = MLS, Brazil, Japan, Australia, and S.Korea… and Bottom 5 = Germany, England, Italy, Spain, Netherlands… it makes me wonder why “parity” is a desired objective in the first place.

    I get it from a league financial stability point of view. But once we are over that hump, do we need it anymore? Perhaps our American competitive mindset (hard work => winner) versus a classic European one (pedigree => winner) suggests we do.


    • Posted by Roy Gathercoal on 2013/11/13 at 9:09 AM

      I think you have something in the competitive vs pedigree thing. Remember the furor when Northwestern finally had a winning NCAA men’s gridiron team? After all those years of being beatup by the likes of Wisconsin and Ohio State, they finally went into most games with an idea they might win. Or to listen to the baseball fans in the US whining over how many years it has been since their team won the World Series! As if every team deserved to be a champion occasionally!

      I think it is probably unlikely that someone at West Brom or Crystal Palace would publicly wail over not winning Champions’ League–instead of bleachers full of fans who believe beyond reason that their team could do it this season (or next) Crystal Palace stands are full of fans desperately hoping to avoid relegation.

      Or when supporters’ groups from Man United meet fans from Crystal Palace, do both groups agree from the outset that Man United is clearly the better team?

      I don’t think anyone is arguing that having a few teams with greater concentrations of good players results in better quality play when these teams play one another. Question is, will the US fan base put up with having teams that never win, or will those teams eventually become financially untenable because enough fans won’t stick with a bottom-five team every year?

      And what will be the future of football in the US if we have just half-a-dozen teams located only in the biggest markets? Will fans in Salt Lake City “believe” if their closest team is in Los Angeles?


  12. Posted by JH on 2013/11/15 at 9:57 AM

    A little late to the party here…

    I think soccer is in some ways a special case, especially compared to football and basketball. Unlike those sports, where the action is sort of primarily physical and intrinsically exciting, in soccer – “the beautiful game” – the pleasure of watching it is deeply tied to the technique and skill of the play.* Consider the feeling when playing pickup, even, and the exhilaration you feel when the game is snappy, quick, and technical – who cares who wins or loses? Soccer played well is a beautiful, entertaining thing in itself.

    That absolutely dreadful KC-Houston match, in the semifinals of the league championship no less, was exciting for no one but the rapid fan bases. To have endured it out of interest in who would win the championship was, for a neutral, nothing more than a kind of sadistic endurance.**

    Compare this to baseball. If the average MLB team couldn’t turn a routine grounder or fly to the outfield into an out, but often misplayed the grounder or dropped the flyball or couldn’t throw the ball to first on target… or if the pitcher walked more batters than he got strikeouts… even if the league had parity, it would still be brutal to watch.

    Before you get all “but the World Cup is ALWAYS BORING” on me, I think there’s another factor which influences the excitement of a soccer game, in addition to the skill and quality, and that is importance or pedigree, as someone pointed out above. The World Cup is a big f***ing deal, so people will watch a kind of clumsy match between Greece and Honduras or something and be entertained because of the scale and scope of the competition. Even a bottom-table EPL game has much more interest than 99% of MLS games, even if they’re not very high quality, because the games are often hugely important and the competition has such a high pedigree.

    I’m sounding more down on MLS than I really am. The quality is getting there, even if it is sometimes laughably bad. The biggest thing MLS needs is to somehow increase the importance of individual games and the stature of the competition itself. If that’s true, then parity doesn’t strike me as being either especially important in itself or even helpful to that end. (For instance, imagine what it would do for the pedigree of the competition for LA or RSL to consistently compete for the Club World Cup and take on Barcelona in real competitive matches.)***

    *Of course deeply passionate fans of specific teams probably more often than not care primarily about winning, as opposed to playing beautifully, but this is not always the case. Real Madrid fans, for example, were aghast at Mourinho’s negative style, and it’s not complete nonsense to say that many of them might have rather lost playing beautiful soccer than have played so ugly in some of the early classicos.

    ** Like pornography, we all know terrible soccer when we see it. But to give you a sense of where I’m coming from: the amount of time the ball is bouncing around uncontrolled by a player, the amount of time the ball is flying through the air seemingly directionless, the incredibly frustrating number of misplaced passes, lost first touches, etc. etc. In most MLS matches, the ball spends more time being lost and fought over than being controlled and manipulated.

    ***I don’t think this is euro-snobbery. It’s undeniable that part of the spectacle of sports is the importance placed on the competition. E.g., no one cares about pre-season football, or the World Baseball Classic. Considering soccer is a global sport, part of the pedigree of MLS will always be in some way compared to the big leagues around the world. That’s just a fact.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/11/15 at 12:40 PM

      One thing that I find annoying is the variance of quality within the *same* team.
      How often have you been at a game when [for example] the DP makes a great run and is in, but somebody else on the team dilly dallies with the ball and the opportunity is lost or he cannot thread the ball through – and the DP is just there with hands on hip looking dejected? A classic example would be NYRB last season.


      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/11/15 at 12:41 PM

        NB: that does not stop me from going though!


        • Posted by JH on 2013/11/15 at 12:58 PM

          Indeed, but you’re a fan of RBNY and can actually get to games. For whatever percentage of American soccer fans who don’t have a local team, why watch MLS on TV instead of the EPL (Bundesliga, La Liga, etc.)?

          Another problem with MLS on TV: I never have any clue what time or channel a game is going to be on. I know, except for dadgum international breaks, that when I wake up saturday morning I can make a pot of coffee and sit down to watch some marquee games. Who knows when MLS games are? Often times the only game I want to watch (LA) is on at 11:00PM Sunday night or something. And the recent playoff round that wasn’t even on TV… what a joke!(Not saying MLS can fix this itself. Of course it comes down to the networks wanting to show the games, but it wouldn’t hurt (a) if the games were at a usual time, and (b) if the individual games had more importance.)

          But my main point is, for a neutral: if the game is ugly and essentially meaningless, why watch it or care about it? (Sorry, meta-reasons like “for the good of American soccer” are not going to persuade most people to sit through a boring, tedious game.)


    • Posted by JH on 2013/11/15 at 1:15 PM

      Hope I’m not boring whomever reads this, but to continue:

      The way I see it, in order to become a top, top competition, MLS needs history, which will come with time, prestige, which should also come with time, and quality, which will come with time.

      I think all those things are developing positively in MLS, and I expect that development to continue. However, in my opinion parity tends to hurt all three of those factors.

      Parity makes winners and losers more random. This makes it harder for a club to develop history. (Random one-off championships spread around the league are insignificant compared to so-called “dynasties”. Even the NFL and NBA benefit from dynasties. Look at the hugely popular Celtics-Lakers matchups a few years ago, and in the NFL everyone remembers the 49ers of the 80s, the Patriots of the early 200s, etc. They don’t remember the 2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)

      Parity by way of salary caps hurts quality. The fluid, team-based nature of soccer tends to require teams to blend and develop over time. Turnover obviously makes this very hard.

      Parity makes prestige hard, by limiting both history and quality.

      I think MLS will be fine and will sooner than later become a “big league”. That’s because America is filled with extraordinary athletes, passionate fans, and practically limitless wealth. But I don’t think MLS is really helped by parity.


  13. […] “The three factors above were weighted equally and assigned a standard deviation (either + or -) for each league and each metric. Add them up and MLS is indeed the most competitive league in this 15-league sample. Interestingly, Brazil was not far behind. Of course, there are multiple ways one can measure parity and competitiveness, and this is just one of many approaches.”  – Alex Olshansky […]


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