MLS vs. Europe

Major League Soccer has come a long way in how it is compared to Europe, and there are many signs that point to the gap closing even faster than expected. However, television ratings and attendance numbers indicate that MLS does not get the respect that it should from its local fans. There is a contingent of fans that turn their nose up at MLS and say that they only watch the European leagues. These fans also judge MLS on factors such as friendly results against European clubs, and brand recognition of a signed Designated Player.

Statistics show that these judgments are unfair. Fans describe MLS as ‘too slow’ or ‘not exciting enough’, and follow that by saying that they only watch soccer in Europe. But statistics show that the majority of these fans are really saying that they only watch the top teams in the world, and are not particularly invested in the rest.

For example, below are some numbers that compare the 2009-2010 European seasons to the 2009 MLS season. One number that jumps out here is Goal/Game, where MLS actually outranked the Premiership. Skeptics may justify this number by looking at the amount of games played, but the fact remains that overall MLS is on par with all of the major European leagues.

GP Home W% Away W% Tie Goals Goals/Game H Goals A Goals Over 1.5 goals Over 2.5 goals Over 3.5 goals
MLS 236 48 21 31 604 2.56 1.5 1.06 72% 41% 25%
England 380 46% 29% 26% 942 2.48 1.4 1.08 70% 48% 25%
MLS 236 48 21 31 604 2.56 1.5 1.06 72% 41% 25%
Spain 380 48 30 22 1101 2.9 1.66 1.24 77% 53% 31%
MLS 236 48 21 31 604 2.56 1.5 1.06 72% 41% 25%
Germany 306 48 28 24 894 2.92 1.7 1.22 81% 56% 33%
MLS 236 48 21 31 604 2.56 1.5 1.06 72% 41% 25%
Italy 380 49 24 27 992 2.61 1.54 1.07 76% 49% 25%

Now let’s compare the averages of the top teams in the world. Below are the 2009-2010 goals/game for the top teams in England and Spain compared with the top teams from the 2009 MLS season. As expected, the top four teams in the EPL and La Liga are scoring more goals than the top four teams in MLS.

Goals For:

Standings MLS England Spain
1 1.27 2.71 2.58
2 1.25 2.26 2.68
3 1.26 2.18 1.55
4 1.27 1.76 1.71
17 1.25 1.24 1.11
18 1.26 1.11 0.97
19 1.26 0.89 1.05
20 1.26 0.89 1

*MLS stats are for bottom teams in the 15 team league (12th, 13th, 14th, 15th)

These statistics show that whoever a top team plays in its schedule, there are going to be goals. And when you combine this with the marketing and star power of these leagues, it is not hard to see why fans tune in.

However, the stats also seem to indicate that the negative perception of MLS has a lot to do with the level of parity in the league. From top to bottom, MLS teams only vary by .03 goals per game. And of course, these teams are not scoring as much as the top teams in the EPL and La Liga. However, MLS teams from top to bottom outscore the bottom half of both their European counterparts (shown in Excel sheet). So when fans describe the EPL and La Liga as more exciting than MLS, they ignore the fact that half of the games do not provide the same amount of goals that an MLS game does.

The table below further proves this point. It shows that over the course of a season, more MLS games feature at least 1.5 goals than the EPL. These numbers change as we look at games with at least 2.5 goals, but remember that the top EPL team and the top two La Liga teams score at least 2.5 goals by themselves. This again shows that fans selectively appreciate the top European leagues, and do not give MLS as much credit.

Goals per Game Percentages

Over 1.5 Over 2.5 Over 3.5
MLS 72% 41% 25%
England 70% 48% 25%
MLS 72% 41% 25%
Spain 77% 53% 31%
MLS 72% 41% 25%
Germany 81% 56% 33%
MLS 72% 41% 25%
Italy 76% 49% 25%

Fans do have a point when they look at the difference between MLS teams in goals scored. The .03 difference league-wide says that while parity is strong, the difference between the top and bottom teams is not how many goals they score, but how many goals they prevent. This potentially speaks to the mentality of MLS clubs. Teams do not define winning as scoring more goals than the other team, but rather as not giving up as many goals as the other team. This is shown in the table below.

Goals Against:                        Win Percentage:

Standings MLS MLS
1 0.97 1 43%
2 0.97 2 40%
3 0.83 3 43%
4 0.93 4 40%
5 0.97 5 37%
6 1.1 6 43%
7 1.23 7 37%
8 1.17 8 37%
9 1.27 9 33%
10 1.4 10 30%
11 1.57 11 37%
12 1.43 12 30%
13 1.4 13 27%
14 1.67 14 23%
15 1.57 15 17%

Because there was virtually no difference in the amount of goals that teams scored in the 2009 season, goals against proved to be the difference. A deeper statistical analysis shows that goals and shots in 2009 decreased from the 2008 MLS season, but more importantly it shows the impact of parity when comparing MLS to Europe.

The stats show that Europe is certainly not blowing the MLS away in terms of quality. But it is blowing the MLS away in salaries. It is clear that the inflated European salaries are playing a major role in fan perception, and essentially downplaying the overall quality of MLS. Steady growth is the right model for MLS. However, the concept of parity is not coming across as well to American fans. If MLS is able to statistically demonstrate the level of salary inflation that goes on in Europe, it could help clear up misconceptions about the league.



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