With MLS, Everything Comes In Cycles

For years there has been a perceived notion that MLS teams have, on average, a three year window of success.

This success is very objective, however, as it all depends on the supporters’ view of success. In truth, every team’s definition of success is very different. For Toronto it would be making the playoffs for the first time, while Seattle Sounders would enjoy making it into the MLS Cup Final; and success to LA Galaxy is nothing short of winning the MLS Cup.

Despite the different measuring sticks of success in MLS, there is a cycle that encapsulates the league. The league’s financial rules, or sometimes restrictions, is the major factor in this cycle of success. When the league was founded in the early 1990s, the idea of parity was an important cornerstone of the league. So much so, that the league’s every decision is made with parity in mind.

Since then we have seen 10 different teams win the MLS Cup in 17 years. Over half the league have now, at one time or another, lifted the most prestigious trophy in MLS, deservedly or not – Colorado Rapids. From the fantastic DC United dynasty in the early years to Houston in the noughties to LA Galaxy’s most recent triumphs, there is a window that’s ever opening and closing for MLS clubs.

In the 2012 season, DC United fans saw their window re-open as the club made the playoffs for the first time since 2007. San Jose also saw a return of success at Buck Shaw Stadium. The Earthquakes won the Supporters’ Shield, though they were knocked out of the playoffs by eventual winners LA Galaxy, and hope to continue their good fortunes in 2013.

At the same time, some clubs may have seen their window closing or slammed shut. Real Salt Lake, a team that never quite fulfilled their potential after winning the 2010 MLS Cup, have already traded away several of their key players of the past few years. Jamison Olave, Will Johnson and Fabian Espindola have been dealt away from the club this off-season in an attempt to make salary-cap space.

These three players will definitely leave a large whole in the team and losing three players of their caliber could stop the club from reaching the standards RSL have met in recent times.

With 19 teams currently in the league and more on the way, there could be an argument that this cycle will come to an end in the future. While some clubs have proven to be good at evaluating and developing college draft picks, others have spent more time shopping for players outside of North America.

With more teams entering MLS, the talent pool is stretched even thinner. Each team filling out a 20-man-plus roster will become even more difficult as the league continues to grow.

No matter how players enter the league, in the end, the best should gravitate to the better teams. For example, teams such as Toronto, New England and Chivas should – technically – have difficulty signing quality players and keeping them on their rosters – if they don’t already. However, this is where MLS steps in and the various rules, such as salary-cap, prevent it from completely happening; keeping MLS from becoming like the leagues in Europe and more of a North America structure.

This won’t prevent clubs like Toronto, New England and Chivas – or another down on their luck club – from becoming what in Europe is known as a selling club. Moving players on and keeping the wage bill relatively low, and hoping to maximize profit with whatever results may come. Again, MLS has rules in place that keep teams from needing to do this and this is only an example.

MLS’s ability to be wide open is one of the biggest draws of the league. Soccer fans tired of seeing the same teams finish top of the league year-after-year have an incentive to follow MLS. The 2013 season will be the league’s 18th, and another club will see their window opening or closing?

Columbus put themselves in a great position to return to past glories, meanwhile, it could be a club like the Galaxy that could have a fall off if they lose anymore of their star names. The MLS cycle is real and it can’t be stopped, just contained.

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About Drew Farmer

Follow Drew Farmer on Twitter @DrewMFarmer. Drew Farmer is a Manchester, England-based journalist/blogger that writes for World Soccer Talk. Drew also writes his on blog at Soccer Travels. Drew has contributed to Radio Yorkshire MLS Monday, Forza Italian Football, MLSGB and Soccerly. Originally from southwest Missouri, Drew covers Italy’s Serie A, English Premier League, German Bundesliga and the USA’s Major League Soccer.
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21 Responses to With MLS, Everything Comes In Cycles

  1. Alex says:

    i understand that parity is attractive notion. heck im all for it. seeing teams battle it out and having the champion being a highly contested prize its great. But the way mls handles parity is what bothers me. Basically MLS promotes parity by keeping teams mediocre, salaries low, freedom low, and selling high. i know i know, you’ll tell me it will get better, with years the salary cap will rise and yadda yadda yadda. the thing is the agenda will always be the same. fans of stuggling franchise clubs will only have to wait until the league office gives the club good players. its a single corporation, not 19 clubs under one roof. so long as mls has 3 or 4 clubs that rake in the cash to subsidize the rest of the league, it doesnt care how the other clubs are doing or even performing. thats what a single entity is. people forget that. IMO playoffs, or some form of playoffs that actually makes sense, is the only parity we need and a more laxed salary cap and player acquisition rules. oh and the notion of a selling club in MLS cant exist since MLS owns all the players a club cant sell a player within the league, thats like selling to yourself. if you are suggesting selling to clubs outside the league then mls still takes a large sum of the transfer fee and distributes it to the rest of the league. its funny USA preaches so much on capitalism and free enterprise yet in the sports world its hugely opposite.

    • Charles says:

      So let’s say soccer is NOT viable without having an Uncle Seattle to pay for it.

      The US should not have soccer ?
      Maybe just amateur soccer ?

      Nothing wrong with subsidies for me if they keep a great league like MLS alive.

      Would I prefer that Columbus stand on its own, on par with Seattle ? Sure. Not happening anytime soon.

      The owner of the Sounders ( yes they are individually owned inspite of what you think ) from the year end meeting in Seattle:

      “Is there a path for MLS to move out of single entity”

      Roth “No chance”.

      He might have a little pull with MLS….just a little.

      • Alex says:

        so it doesnt bother you that sounders is basically paying say Revolution or Crew to keep sucking? you do realize that its holding your club back right? so money that could be used to say buy players, improve facilities, fund events, etc, that money is going to Revolution to pay their players then basically sit and do nothing. Kraft is more concerned about the Patriots than Revolution, makes no effort to look for stadium sites, makes no effort to buy players, and every club, including Sounders is paying him for that and you’re ok with that?

        and you’re actually wrong. owners is just a term of endearment. their real name is “investor/operator”. the “owners” are stakeholders of the league, ergo each team is centrally owned by the league. you, the ‘owner’, pay in order to individually manage a piece of the pie. and get paid a percentage of the league’s revenue except for over-seas games which is why RBNJ preferred to put so much effort in the “audi cup” than in the USOC.

        lastly Roth probably said that due to the cemented business model of MLS, which i agree so long as NFL execs run the league theres no chance of that ever going away.

  2. Alex says:

    honest question though, if MLS is the bastion of parity, then why does MLS consistantly favor RBNJ or LA Galaxy when it comes to DP’s? doesnt really make it fair to other clubs without the means of DP’s yet RBNJ and Galaxy get the once big names. although RBNJ will never win anything no matter who they sign. ha.

    • Charles says:

      yeah, I don’t like the DPs.

      I would rather have 20 teams spending $5 million each, than 15 spending $3 million and 5 teams spending $45 million.

    • Gazza says:

      @Alex How does MLS favour NY and LA? The players decide where they want to play. TFC has had more DP’s than NY. Plus every club has means to sign any DP. All the owner/operators have deep pockets.

      • Alex says:

        yea but remember MLS buys the players, not the clubs. MLS goes to the player, presents the contract and say “you can play here, or there. these clubs are willing to buy”. and if you look at the news its always either RBNJ or LAG. and if say Kaka wanted to come to MLS for its “peaceful environment” which is usually the reason why, and said either RBNJ or LAG were the cities he’d rather play then MLS will negotiate with those clubs to try and get him here because we know Kaka means big bucks to stadiums and stores. Until MLS becomes a respectable league with real quality, the only selling points for clubs is its city life, which smaller city clubs like commerce city, Salt lake city, Chester PA dont have. (remember when pierre ditched a potential Philly Union contract because he didnt think Philly/chester was a pretty city?). MLS isnt going to refuse a big name player because he prefers RBNJ or LAG, THATS why MLS prefers those clubs over others in terms of DP’s.

        as for means of buying DPs. you’re right, owners do have big pockets. but running a mls club isnt cheap and most of these clubs operate at a loss. with that being said why would the league and owner shell out millions of dollars on a player to go to a club that can barely pay and gamble on whether the player can do well or not.

        • Charles says:

          NONE of the MLS franchises ( not clubs, club is a fake term used to fool Europeans into thinking they are a part of a business ) are operating at a loss.

          I would like you do explain with TV contracts that are multi million per team, excess Sounders rev of a million per team and Addidas paying the league more than a million per team how they are losing money.

          Go for it, the salary cap is $3 million and the teams have not sold one ticket or piece of advertising yet.

  3. Charles says:

    It will be funny to see parity argued against right now.

    Didn’t they actually etch Barca’s name on the trophy this weekend ?

    And Man U 13 points over third place ? Wow very exciting half way through.

    14 points separated 1-10 in MLS, perhaps it will get closer in the top non-parity leagues.

  4. Drew Farmer says:

    Great comments guys! I agree about the increased salary cap and cutting out the DP. That would make things more interesting. Or at least a separate salary cap for DPs, for example $3m for regular players and $15m cap for three DPs or something along those lines.

    • Charles says:

      Yeah, I figured they were making more than they said. Has there ever been a league where the opposite was true ?

      Read the other day they are getting $25 million a year from Addidas because they use their jerseys. There is ANOTHER million per team there.

      Just raise it to $5mm and if Columbus, etc. can’t keep up, use the extra $6 million ( only 19 teams, $25 million ) from Addidas to cover deficits.

      • Alex says:

        thats actually a interesting point on Adidas. i always wonder what on earth MLS does with Adidas’ money besides the Generation Adidas. if we’re getting money for crappy jerseys then lets use it to improve the cap. for once i agree with you charles.

  5. Hank says:

    Whelp, you just lost a podcast subscriber. The Rapids deserved to hoist the cup as much as any other team. They played the playoffs as well as anyone else could.

  6. The original Tom says:

    Rapids also got really lucky because they swung over to the Eastern bracket. Having said that, I always felt that team (my team) had a good 12 players and even that August I felt we could go on a run. But excellence over a whole season should be rewarded and encouraged, which is why the Supporters Sheild should be acknowledged at the same level as the MLS Cup.

    • Drew Farmer says:

      Nice to see a supporter of the team be a quite honest. What do you think of the Rapids chances this yr?

      • The original Tom says:

        The end of this past season did not leave me optomistic. I haven’t followed the ins and outs this offseason- I do know Casey is gone, which is sad, but probably for the best- but it seems we never replaced Pablo Mastreoni, who I think is done.

    • Charles says:


      I know you views and I understand your views. It is fair. Regular season champions may be boring, but it is very fair.

      The problem is if you have two champions doesn’t that make each championship worth 1/2….I say yes.

      It is the sole reason I want SS to go the way of the dodo bird.

      • The original Tom says:

        But then the double is extra special- it doesn’t even happen every year! It is like college football, I’d love to win our conference- the fact that someone else wins the National Championship doesn’t dilute that, especially since the other guys win their thing a few weeks later.

        • Charles says:

          Cool. you didn’t change my opinion, but thanks.

          I started thinking only the Sounders were falling behind the rest of MLS, but the Rapids have done nothing too, huh ?

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