In defense of chaos in MLS

Quick Hits
  • We witnessed another wild weekend of MLS action recently, which prompts an interesting discussion about the differences between soccer in MLS and in Europe
  • For all of MLS’s problems and self-induced inefficiency, there’s something to be said for its chaotic nature
Aug 6, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta United defender Andrew Gutman (15) reacts with teammates after his goal in stoppage time against the Seattle Sounders during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
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This is an excerpt from Monday’s Weekend Recap. Subscribe to our free newsletter to get future editions of the Weekend Recap delivered right to your inbox.

So you know how I wrote last week that last weekend was just about the most MLS weekend to ever MLS? Well, last weekend pales in comparison to what we saw on Saturday. 

The day started off with a 94th minute winner from Andrew Gutman for Atlanta United and ended with a 100th minute equalizer for FC Dallas via an own goal from Diego Chara. In between? Chaos. Pure chaos. All told, MLS teams scored 57 goals on Saturday, which is the most goals scored in league history on a single day.

As we head into the second week of August and round into the final stretch of the season (and Wednesday’s All-Star Game, which I’ll be covering in person!), I’m reminded of how much I appreciate MLS’s wild side. As someone who spends time talking about European soccer, too, there’s a pretty stark contrast between MLS’s variety and some of the routine that we see over in Europe. 

On Friday, Bayern Munich kicked off their Bundesliga title defense with a 6-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt. Bayern have won 10 titles in a row over in Germany – and it doesn’t look like that streak is going to end any time soon. On Saturday, Paris Saint-Germain started their Ligue 1 title defense with a 5-0 win over Clermont Foot. PSG have won eight of the last 10 titles in France and have all of the money they could possibly need to make it nine out of the last 11.

The title races in Italy, England, and Spain aren’t so clear cut, but there is still a noticeable divide between the teams that have a realistic chance of winning those leagues and the ones who don’t. According to FiveThirtyEight, only three teams have more than a 10% chance of winning the Premier League this season. The same goes for both Serie A and La Liga.

Don’t get me wrong: there are things about soccer in all of those leagues that MLS can only dream of right now. The crowds. The cultural ties. The drama that stems from having an open-pyramid. Okay, MLS isn’t dreaming of an open-pyramid, but the undeniable drama that results from having relegation? Yeah, that’s the good stuff. 

From where I sit now, in 2022, it’s clear that MLS struggles to manufacture interest around games involving teams who have already been eliminated from playoff contention. Or ones who have little to no hope of making the playoffs. 

MLS has tried to fix that problem by letting a bunch of teams into the postseason. But that only serves to limit the intrigue surrounding the playoff race. With the way the league is structured where there’s little incentive to spend and no punishment for mediocrity, there’s no obvious way to make a large chunk of regular season games interesting to a wider audience. 

That’s a real issue. 

But for all of MLS’s problems and self-induced inefficiency, there’s something to be said for a 3-1 win for FC Cincinnati over the Philadelphia Union. There’s something to be said for a team who’s known nothing but last place in MLS beating one of the best teams in the league.

There’s a middle ground somewhere between where today’s MLS is and where some of the world’s top leagues are, in terms of structure and balance and drama and intrigue. I would argue that none of those leagues are perfectly positioned. And I would wager that we’ll see more attempts at structural changes on both sides of the Atlantic in the next decade. 

Everyone is looking for that perfect blend of quality and chaos. 

In MLS, we’re sure seeing the chaos right now.