While you would expect Major League Soccer to be behind the giants of Europe and South America in the race for strongest league in the world, the folks at the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) may have taken things a little too far. MLS is behind the usual suspects: La Liga, the Premier League, Serie A - no surprises there. What is perhaps a little more strange is to see the league ranked behind (and this is by no means exhaustive) the national leagues from Angola, Botswana, Armenia, and India, 88th overall out of 115. Something seems a little odd here.
The top of the table paints a similar story. While nobody would really begrudge La Liga its spot as #1 overall despite fairly middling success in the Champion's League last year, when the next two leagues are from Brazil and Argentina, something has gone rather seriously amiss. Chile (9th) is also nine places higher than Holland (18th) - and while I don't mean to be a Eurosnob, I simply cannot see the likes of Universidad taking on Ajax and PSV with any great success.
Perhaps their methodology would provide some insight as to how reliable the rankings are before we pass judgment on this apparently bizarre listing? Let's get that from the source.
UEFA Champions League: 14 - 7 - 0 points for win - draw - defeat
UEFA Europa League: 12 - 6 - 0 points for win - draw - defeat
Copa Libertadores: 14 - 7 - 0 points for win - draw - defeat
Copa Sudamericana: 12 - 6 - 0 points for win - draw - defeat
CAF Champions League: 9 - 4.5 - 0 points for win - draw - defeat
CAF Confederations Cup: 7 - 3.5 - 0 points for win - draw - defeat
AFC Champions League: 9 - 4.5 - 0 points for win - draw - defeat
AFC Cup: 7 - 3.5 - 0 points for win - draw - defeat
CONCACAF Champions League: 9 - 4.5 - 0 points for win - draw - defeat
OFC Champions League: 5 - 2.5 - 0 points for win - draw - defeat
FIFA Club World Cup: 14 - 7 - 0 (finals: 21 - 10,5 - 0) points for win - draw - defeat
The widening difference in standard and performance between the two club competitions within each continent, as well as the increasing number of matches played in the less important competition of each continent.
Well then. When you start with the assumption that the South American leagues are already as good as Europe's, you will come to the conclusion that many of the individual leagues are better than Europe's. When you assume that North American leagues are awful to begin with, the MLS will never rank well, especially with Mexico dominating the international tournaments. And whenever anyone thinks that Club World Cup matters rather than simply being a glorified set of friendlies for Leo Messi to win, I have Community Shield tickets to sell you.
Essentially, these rankings are spitting a set of assumptions back out. There appears to be zero rationale behind the relative weightings of the tournaments, which means that while they may be useful for intra-continental rankings, they certainly are not helpful if we want to compare MLS to, say, the Belgian league. Since this 88th place ranking is based on a system that seems mostly arbitrary and does not pass the smell test, I'd imagine that we can pretty safely ignore it.
This, of course, raises the question of how to actually do a proper set of rankings. I have some thoughts, but no real answers. My statistical background is largely in baseball analysis, and relative league strength is an important question there as well - one that's been solved down to a 'good enough' level, for the most part.
The means by which baseball analysts look at league difficulty is by tracking players who pass between leagues. Below the top level of baseball in the country (MLB) lies AAA baseball, and players who move from AAA to MLB see their performance drop to about 90% of their AAA numbers. Similar results, although of course in the other direction, apply when an MLB player is demoted to the minor leagues.
This is probably the best way to handle things in soccer as well, especially with so much movement between leagues on an international scale. However, we run into a couple of problems - one fairly minor, and one horrendously difficult. Let's look at the big one first.
The main issue is that we really don't know how to evaluate players. We don't have the data we need, and we certainly don't have the analytical methods in place to correctly divide up credit for wins and draws to individual players. Goals and assists are nice but will result in strikers and attacking midfielders being rather massively overrated, and ignore the good work done in build-up play if a forward scuffs a chance. Unless you can say for sure how many goals/wins each move on the field is worth (which is possible, but currently unfeasible), you can't get an accurate assessment of player value, which completely torpedoes the idea of measuring leagues based on player performance.
The smaller problem is that different leagues have different styles of play, and they suit certain players more than others. A terrier in the Sebastian Le Toux style would find himself much more at home in the frenzied environment of the Premier League than in the more cerebral continental leagues, and one would have to imagine that there'd be an appreciable impact on his value as a result - not that we could measure that performance anyway.
So the player comparison method doesn't work, because we don't really have the tools at hand to track players that closely. How about a different approach?
Another possible option is using national teams to get a feel for how good a given league is. World Cup rosters were primarily drawn from Europe this year, which strongly implies that the best players in the world are plying their trade there. How might we translate this into league rankings?
Here's a thought. At the end of the World Cup, FIFA ranks teams 1-32 based on performance and strength of opposition. Why not give each national league points based on the summation of each player's minutes in the World Cup * (33 - RankWC)? This would appear to reward teams based on the impact their players made at the World Cup, which is almost certainly better than rewarding them based on arbitrary rankings of continental tournaments.
However, we run into a fairly big problem here: the World Cup rankings don't really represent which teams are better than others. Uruguay, for example, are everbody's darlings, but they had the easiest route into the semifinals in the tournament, and it wasn't close. Spain, Germany, and Holland each had to play a powerhouse (two, in Germany's case, but England and Argentina were both fatally flawed anyway); Uruguay picked off South Korea and then Ghana. Is it really fair to call them the fourth best team in the world? Athletico Madrid should be given points for having Diego Forlan on the roster, but under this system La Liga would benefit more from the presence of Forlan than that of Christiano Ronaldo or Leo Messi, both far superior players.
We could work around this by adding some element of the FIFA rankings, but they're probably flawed in their own right as well. Many people would probably suggest looking at previous World Cup results as well, but once you go more than four years back things become fairly irrelevant - the stars of 2002, by and large, are not going to be making an impact in 2010. What we really need is a good index of national team strength and then takes into account playing time in competitive matches (rather than experimental friendlies), which would provide a significantly better gauge of league strength than that provided by the IFFHS.
Alternatively, we could do a mashup of FIFA rankings and World Cup rankings, which would be an ugly, band-aid style solution... but still a far superior methodology to a set of rankings that has the Peruvian League 80 places higher than MLS.