With soccer consistently being an overdone metaphor for life, it's hard to not feel idealistic about it, such as we do with life. We always want the best. We want things to be right. We dream big. Hard workers get their rewards. New methods flourish. Creativity, love, and inspiration are the goals above all else.
Part of this idealism we have with our American version of the sport is 'parity,' the concept that the gap between the top team and the bottom team is marginal at worst, and that everyone has a chance to win if they just give it 110%. We try to make the playing field as fair as possible. This is very much in line with the American way of doing sports; most leagues in this country strive for some level of parity and do achieve it.
But can you have too much parity? Is our game, and our league a truly more intriguing division with it? Is anyone really happy? Is it even fair?
This season is a prime example of how level the playing field is in Major League Soccer, and just how difficult that can be. So few points separate 1st from 10th, and all but only a small handful of teams are still very much alive in the playoff race. For the mast majority of fanbases, this seems like an intrinsically good thing. There are things to gain from such an equal competition.
What you lose though is a sense of identity. Nobody's got one. When all the teams are on the same level, you have no power houses, no doormats (except for Toronto FC), and no contenders. Everyone for the most part just falls into some middle ground where one week your team looks excellent, you get excited, and then the next they lose 3-0 to a team on a similar, albeit opposite ebb and flow. An analysis of the table is almost pointless, as its sure to be shuffled like a deck of cards next week.
When you ask yourself who the really good teams in the league are, who comes to mind? Salt Lake, Seattle, Los Angeles, Montreal? Kansas City? New York? None of these teams are dominant. That's also a good 6 out of 19, and for those keeping score thats around a third of the league.
When everyone is 'great,' nobody is.
It ultimately leads to a league of utterly frustrated fans. In a system that is supposed to keep everyone happy, the irony is that no one is happy. They spend half their weekends with their heads in their hands wondering 'what's wrong with my team?' At the very least in a more organic system, where natural selection constantly rewards the best, and the less skilled teams sink like stones, you have the comfort of at least knowing where you stand. You know who you are, and can either gloat or sulk accordingly. In seasons like this, a good 90% of the league's fans are sitting somewhere in between those two emotions, probably at a loss for words to describe the feeling of watching their team lose 0-3, only to show up the next week and win 5-1.
We're seeing the effects of the frustration this season. Writing weekend previews for MLS games is a chore of repetition as I write about teams with no direction; clubs with no identifiable features. If you listen to league podcasts you can hear the anger, confusion, and heartbreak on the voices of everyone who covers an MLS team as they metaphorically throw their papers out the window and their hands in the air after every inconsistent performance. We're seeing it in a table that is so hard to follow and have a clear idea of who goes where without having it sitting right in front of your face. We're seeing it in the fans reaching for panic buttons that really should never even exist (again unless you're Toronto FC.)
When we examine European leagues it's' not difficult to see the common downsides of a runaway system of sports capitalism. La Liga is a two horse race that I've never once found myself getting excited about. The English Premier League has a little more intrigue, but you ultimately know United will come out on top like the ending of a Hollywood movie in the golden age of cinema. You knew the ending was coming a mile away, but you almost bought that it might not happen. Perhaps these leagues could do with a little more year to year shuffling and power shifting, and certainly could do with a few more necks stretching to hit the finish line first, but their lack of parity actually benefits them for the majority of Saturdays during the season.
There's a higher excitement on a game to game basis when they're viewed as self contained bubbles. The spectacle is increased for the big clashes. There's a much greater interest and collective satisfaction for the upsets. No, Cardiff is not winning the league. They may not even finish in the top half. But when they beat City with 3 second half goals, it was as if it was the only game that played that weekend. People cared. It was a legitimately huge upset, and it captured the hearts and attentions of most BPL fans and then some.
Compare this to when Chivas upset the Red Bulls on the same day 3-2. How many of you didn't even know this happened and it was within your league? No one cares. You just chalk it up to 'yeah, that's how this league is.' Cardiff was so incredible because if you played that game 9 more times, City takes 8 of them, and they draw the other. Chivas probably gets a result against New York at least 33% of the time.
Team identities create storylines. Even from a neutral perspective, a weekend of games of entirely equal teams has much less that sticks out than a league with one top table clash, one relegation battle, and a couple teams looking to giant kill. When everyone's storyline is "I wonder which team is going to show up this weekend," it becomes a one-note tune that gets old quick. And you're more than likely too neurotic and stressed about whether your team's Jekyll or Hyde will show up that you don't even bother to invest anything in the headlines of the other matches, which usually read 'Who the hell are we?!' Sports media has at the very least a thin outline of a story to tell when covering leagues that have clear cut winners and losers; heroes and villains. In a league where you have very few of those, where is the conflict?
And call me selfish, but you can bet I want my team to win every Saturday, in every league, in every year. Parity is a really cool idea and all, but I want the team I support to be the Empire; the juggernaut with the ever elusive target on their back. I want everyone to hate my team. I think deep down, even the most idealistic of sports fans want this. Small market MLB teams may cry foul that the Yankees have all the wealth, resources, and reap the benefits of that in trophies, but in reality, if given the opportunity, they'd put themselves in that position in a heartbeat. I think this is what every fan should want. This is what every team should strive for.
Now I'm not arguing that the league should just let teams do whatever they want. Granted this would probably benefit the Sounders, but I think it's warranted to say a greater effort should be made to reward and not punish teams who scout well, sign well, and play well. We talk about teams in our league getting better not by the ambition of their signings and the strength of their systems, but by convoluted forms of addition and subtraction. As Sounders fans, the salary cap conversation is one we constantly have, but is it entirely justified for a league to tell the team we may not be able to field a squad we've honestly put together through good signings and timely acquisitions? All just because in order to pay the players what they're worth would be to go over a salary cap? For a system that preaches fairness, that's demonstrably unfair.
The big story is the contract Eddie Johnson stands to make, or not make should we choose to move him. Consider the fact that when he came back to the league many people (including Sounders fans) saw it as a pretty big gamble. The team traded away because they saw something they liked in him. They were willing to do the homework and take the risk. It seems silly that a few years later now that it's proved to be one of the smartest moves Seattle has ever made, that they may have to sacrifice him or anyone else on the team to abide by the salary cap when they were the team that took the chance and made the right decision in the first place. He's worth more than he's making. That's obvious. The Sounders shouldn't be forced to make a decision in terms of paying him. They already made that choice (and it was the unpopular yet very correct one) when trading up in the allocation to acquire Johnson.
And it doesn't even entirely end there. Many of us don't think Mauro Rosales is worth a DP slot next year, and there is a solid argument for that. What if he doesn't want to take the paycut though? What if the Sounders are willing to continue to pay him? Again this was a player without a team who was given a trial, and the Sounders took a chance on. Why should another team benefit from the hard work and scouting Seattle has done, because he can't fit into the cap at his current price. Brad Evans is another player who stands out here. Given he's improved into a versatile chess piece tactically, and has even become a Klinsmann favorite in the Men's National Team, the likelihood of him deserving a better contract exists. He was a guy Sigi really liked from Columbus that he brought with him during the expansion draft, and surely much of his progress can be credited to the training and conditioning of the Sounders organization. Why should they not be allowed to pay him what he's worth? Why should they have to cut other guys on the team who they've acquired by equally honest means just to make the room?
It's a system that punishes success, and over the very long run rewards failure. If you've put together a terrible team in which very few of your players deserve a raise, you stand in prime position to pick off salary cap sacrifices, and benefit from the good decisions and hard work of other clubs.
I suppose every system has its drawbacks. Every ideal comes at a price. Sacrifices must be made for the great good. In the end it's up to the guys in charge to make these decisions, not amateur soccer writers like myself. And while we all like to imagine a world in which our team is dead last and still has a chance of dusting itself off and getting back on that horse, I think many fans neglect to consider life on the opposite side of that field. I have a tendency to be very 'on the fence' about things. Seeing all sides of an argument is one of my strengths, so I'm not going to say that this stance is definitively right, and the idea of a level playing field doesn't hold any merit. But I can at least make one statement without any sense of doubt.
And it's that there can only be one 'best team' in the league. You can't have 19 of them. Any attempt to achieve such an unobtainable sports utopia leaves nobody better off.
Except maybe Toronto FC.
(About the writer: My name is Jason Robertson and I'm a Sounder At Heart from afar. I live in Phoenix, Arizona, but Seattle is really my true home, and the Sounders are the only team that matters 8 days out of the week. I write for the website Reckless Challenge, and contribute weekly pieces on hometown USLPRO side Phoenix FC during the season, opinion pieces like the one you've just read weekly, and do a weekend preview of all of the games in US Pro Soccer Leagues. I've also written the occasional Sounders piece for them, and The Union Dues which is now SBNation's 'The Brotherly Game. I also enjoy lame puns.)