Can Small-Market MLS Teams Still Win?
There are a lot of people who are concerned that the new wave of designated player signings could destroy parity in Major League Soccer and create a new NASL. People like Tom Dunmore, Max Zeger, Steve Davis, and Clemente Lisi, to name just the ones that come up very quickly when you do a search for “MLS parity.” Supposedly, parity is what MLS was built on. Keeping costs down and keeping one team from being significantly stronger than the others is part of Major League Soccer’s philosophy. After the collapse of the NASL, we wanted to stop that from happening again. We wanted a stable professional league that didn’t have wildly fluctuating attendances and a juggernaut that won the league every season. Why are the likes of Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez going to change that?
You may have noticed that the Los Angeles Galaxy have not won a championship with David Beckham and Landon Donovan on the same team. You may also notice that the New York Red Bulls are in fifth place in MLS and have only taken five out of a possible 12 points since the arrival of Thierry Henry. Meanwhile, sitting ahead of them are a Beckham-less Galaxy, a DP-less Real Salt Lake side, and two teams owned by cheapskate Clark Hunt, FC Dallas and the Columbus Crew. It’s very early in the game, but the Designated Player doesn’t appear to be killing parity yet.
The reality is, with the salary cap rules that MLS has in place, the DP will never kill parity. Even if a team signs Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, and Xavi Hernandez, they will be hard pressed to find players of a similar quality to put around them. Three players do not make a team, and teams that have the money for superstars often lose sight of this. In all sports, there are players to be found for bargains. There are undiscovered gems just waiting for a chance with anyone. The likes of the Red Bulls and Galaxy might have a slight advantage over the likes of Columbus and Kansas City, but this is not an advantage unique to Major League Soccer, and teams in other sports seem to cope just fine.
Despite the seemingly endless resources of the New York Yankees, they managed to lose the 2003 World Series to a Florida Marlins team made up of talented youngsters, diamonds in the rough, and washed up has-beens. A year later, in 2004, a Detroit Pistons team made up of players acquired through bargain trades, cheap free agent signings, and intelligent drafting defeated a Los Angeles Lakers team with Shaquille O’Neill and Kobe Bryant to win the NBA title. In 2006, the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup, led by their 36 year old captain, the supposedly washed up Rod Brind’Amour. Four years earlier, that same team had made the Stanley Cup Finals behind their supposedly washed up captain, 39 year old Ron Francis. And of course, the most relevant example of this phenomenon, Real Salt Lake won last season’s MLS Cup without a single designated player. All of their best players were acquired through intelligent trades and great scouting and they defeated four designated players on three different teams on their way to the title.
Even in a league where the playing field is supposedly level, the big cities will always have an advantage when it comes to signing players. The biggest players in the league, no matter how big they are in the context of that sport around the world, will always want to play in New York or Los Angeles. Despite this, teams from smaller markets find ways to win in all sports. Just like someone for Real Salt Lake went and found Javier Morales and convinced him to come to Utah and help them win a title, someone did the same with Albert Pujols and Brett Favre in baseball and American football. Both of those players were relative unknowns in their youth, but intelligent scouts went and found them, their bosses acquired them, and both of them went on to win championships and become all-time greats in their sport.
If other teams want to win, they can find ways to win without superstars. The Kansas City Wizards can’t afford to pay Rafa Marquez a salary of $5 million a season to play for them, but they can pay for the salary and travel expenses of a couple of scouts. With the structure of MLS being what it is, teams will be more successful on the field with 11 players like Javier Morales than they will be with three superstars, a couple of decent players, and six scrubs. The small market teams can’t bring in an established superstar, but they’re perfectly capable of finding their own Albert Pujols or Brett Favre. If you think that the influx of designated players will kill parity in MLS, then you haven’t been paying attention to sports at all.