I enjoyed a good laugh with CLS Grand Poobah Jay Hipps Saturday; his Twitter feed full of Jean-Paul Sartre quotes helped keep me awake as we struggled with the existential angst of another scoreless tie in MLS.
The match was just one of many difficult-to-sit-through (or, easy-to-sleep-through) games around the league this season. Just last year, MLS achieved a new league record for futility by having 19 games go scoreless. Saturday’s match between the Quakes and Union was the 21st goal free game this season, and we’re just halfway through they year.
What’s going on here? Not much, at least on the offensive side of the ball, thanks to expansion. Expansion of the playoffs, and of the league itself. Expansion has shrunk offense.
Let’s start with the number of teams. Scoreless ties have been on a steady rise since 2005, when the league expanded from 10 teams to 12. I’m all for the league’s continued growth, but since MLS has not sufficiently expanded the salary cap (despite those expansion team fees that are rolling in) you have a lot of guys out there who should be playing in the USL, like they were a year or two ago.
As the number of MLS teams has gone up steadily over time, so has the number of scoreless games. The creative talent in this league is already spread so thin it’s often see-through, and the near future does not look promising — unless you’re a goalkeeper — as Montreal will be coming in next year, with a 20th team due to follow soon after.
But at least the new teams have an upside: they bring new energy, new crowds, and new money. The league’s decision to reward mediocrity by expanding the number of playoff teams has only brought more deathly dull matches. Ten of the 18 teams will make the playoffs this year, meaning you can finish in the bottom half of the league after 34 games, and still need only one lucky month to be crowned champion.
Because of that fact, MLS coaches are playing not to lose rather than to win. One point is good enough to get ahead these days, so there’s little reason to risk losing trying to earn all three. The Supporters Shield is a piece of trivia, not a Major Trophy. All that matters is making the playoffs. It was bad enough when the playoff chase meant a race for 8th place. In 2008, the Red Bulls had a losing record in the regular season (10-11-9) but found themselves playing in the MLS Cup Final. In 2009, Salt Lake also had a losing regular season record (11-12-7) but ended up getting gold stars sewn on their shirts. Now, we have a race to finish tenth, and 21 scoreless ties before the all-star break.
By trying to cash in on a couple more playoff games, the league has made dozens of regular season matches less meaningful, and less attractive. With two new clubs and two more playoff spots, MLS has seen a huge uptick in 0-0 games. The way for this league to reach the Big Time is to win soccer fans over to the MLS brand, but having a bunch of mediocre teams playing very conservatively is not going to win hearts and minds. Yes, the new clubs have brought new crowds, but MLS TV ratings remain miniscule (even compared to other soccer telecasts) and franchises in several markets struggle to find a crowd (regardless of published attendance figures).
If the league will not allow teams to spend the necessary money to build major league rosters, they should at least incentivize winning, instead of dumbing down the competition to accommodate their expansion teams. Shrinking the playoff pool back to eight would be a good step in that direction, the first step on a long journey towards building an MLS that's truly major league.
(Just to compare, I've done some math. So far this season, 21 of 170 MLS matches have ended in scoreless draws. That's 12.3 percent. To compare, last season in the English Premier League, there were 25 0-0 matches out of 380, or 6.5%. MLS has 87% more scoreless draws. — Editor)