How Competitive is the Major League Soccer Compared to European Soccer Leagues?

Unlike in Europe, in the United States and Canada, soccer has most often been overlooked. The two countries share a single top-level soccer competition, the Major League Soccer (MLS). Compared to European soccer leagues like La Liga (in Spain), the Premier League (in England), and the Bundesliga (in Germany), the MLS is less popular. In terms of average attendance, it ranks behind the three European leagues (tenth in the world with 21,311 fans per game in Season 2019). In terms of broadcasts outside the U.S. and Canada, until 2019, broadcasts of the MLS were limited to the United Kingdom, Ireland, and India.

What about the competitive balance of these leagues? Competitive balance refers to the degree of uncertainty regarding the outcome of a competition. When it comes to major European leagues, this topic has received great attention both in and outside academia. In comparison, competitive balance in the MLS has earned considerably less attention. So is the MLS more or less balanced than La Liga, the Premier League, and the Bundesliga? To find out, let’s look at some statistics in these leagues from 2015 until now.

First, we have a graph of points per game (PPG) as a function of season-end position, averaged across seasons for each league. A more gradually declining line indicates that teams’ performances are closer to one another, which in turn suggests that the league is more balanced. The MLS appears to be the most balanced, and the Bundesliga the least. PPG in the MLS are lower than those in the other leagues for the first five positions, but start to surpass PPG in the Bundesliga at Position #6, and surpass those in all the other leagues from Position #8 onward. This suggests that it is more difficult for the top teams in the MLS to earn points than it is for the top teams in the European leagues, which in turn offers another piece of evidence for a higher level of competitive balance in the MLS.

To have a clearer picture of how close teams’ performances were to one another, I computed the difference in PPG between each team and the team ranking immediately below them in the season-end table. For example, for the team in the first place, this measure was computed by subtracting from their PPG the PPG of the team in the second place in the same season of the same league. The following graph shows the differences in PPG plotted against season-end position, with lower values suggesting more competitive balance. Most values are under .15, equivalent to either 1 win and 2 draws or 2 wins. In general, the values are lower for the MLS than for the other leagues, with only one value in the MLS above .15. This suggests the MLS has the highest competitive balance. Also note that, for all leagues, the values for the top 2 teams are higher than those for the teams in the middle positions, suggesting that it is easier to tell apart the top 2 teams from the rest than to tell the middle teams apart. This is more obvious for the European leagues (especially the Bundesliga) than for the MLS, which corroborates the claim that the MLS is the most balanced of the four leagues.

The results for win proportions are quite similar to those for PPG. The following graph shows win proportions as a function of season-end position, averaged across seasons for each league. Similar to what we saw in the graph of PPG, here the line for the MLS has the most shallow slope, indicating that the performances of teams in this league, compared to those of teams in the other leagues, are the closest to one another. This in turn suggests that the MLS is the most balanced. Additionally, the win proportions in the MLS are lower than those in the other leagues for the first six positions, but are higher for the remaining positions. This suggests that the top teams in the MLS are less likely to win than are the top teams in the other leagues, which in turn is another piece of evidence for stronger competitive balance in the MLS.

Just like for PPG, for win proportions I computed the difference between every two teams that were adjacent in season-end positions, and then plotted the differences averaged across seasons for each league as a function of position (graph below). The graph tells a story similar to what we have seen from the other graphs (though it might be less clear here than it was from the graph of the differences in PPG): the MLS has the highest competitive balance. Most values are under .065, equivalent to more than 2 wins. Again, the values for the top 2 teams are higher than those for the teams in the middle positions, suggesting that it is easier to separate the top 2 teams from the rest than to separate the middle teams from one another. This is especially true for the Bundesliga and the Premier League, indicating a lack of balance between the top 2 teams and the rest in each of these leagues.

Let’s now zoom in and look at only the top 4 positions in each season. Finishing in the top 4 is especially important for teams in the European leagues, because doing so will earn them a spot in the next season of the highly prestigious Champions League. The next two graphs show the PPG and win proportions for these positions in each league, averaged across all five seasons. A higher bar indicates that it is more demanding to finish in that position. For a particular league, if the bars have relatively similar heights, that suggests higher competitive balance among the top 4 teams.

Overall, finishing in the top 4 is the most difficult in the Premier League, followed by La Liga, the Bundesliga, and finally the MLS, where it is pretty easy to finish in the top 4. The differences among the leagues are not big, though. To know the minimum PPG and minimum win proportion needed for a team to finish in the top 4, let’s look at the statistics for the fifth position in each league (averaged across all five seasons):

The race for the top 4 is indeed more demanding in the Premier League than in the other leagues.

Another thing that the two top-4 graphs show us is that, as suggested by the similar heights of the bars, the competitive balance among the top 4 is the highest in the MLS. In La Liga it is also rather balanced, though not as much as it is in the MLS. In the Bundesliga and the Premier League, there is quite an obvious gap between the top 2 teams and the other two, and an even bigger gap between the league champions and the runner-ups. This is consistent with what is shown in the graph of the differences in PPG and in that of the differences in win proportion.

The European leagues are quite similar to one another in terms of competitive balance, and the MLS — contrary to what I expected — seems to be superior to them all. The lack of competitive balance (as well as the decrease thereof over the years) in the European leagues has been attributed both to improvements in performance of a few big clubs (e.g., Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid) and to the quick financial growth of such clubs. The latter allows them to spend more money both on upgrading training facilities and on buying high-quality players, which in turn increases their success on the pitch.

With regard to the comparison between the European leagues and the MLS, the results might have been confounded by the fact that the MLS is played in a slightly different format from the other leagues. In the European leagues, teams face each of their opponents twice in a season, one at home and one away. In the MLS, teams are divided into the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference; teams play against each of their conference opponents twice, but face each of the teams from the other conference only once. Thus, if we define competitive balance as the degree to which teams are evenly matched on their ability to win, then, for the MLS, it is impossible to measure competitive balance in its complete sense, because not all teams play against all other teams in the league the same number of times (twice). Future research should look for ways to tackle this issue and try to come up with a good measure of competitive balance in the MLS.

The analyses presented in this article were part a data science project on the competitive balance of different soccer leagues. For more details as well as the data set and the R code I used, please visit the GitHub repo for the project.

Aspiring data scientist. GitHub: @tara-nguyen. LinkedIn: @taranguyen264

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store