Competitive balance is the defining quality of MLS. Nothing else — not expansion, not the exploding valuations of its franchises, not the level of play, not the amount of fan interest — does as much to set the tone of the league as the idea that every team, every season should have a reasonable chance of winning, regardless of how much or how little they spend.  

It’s a principle inherent to professional sports in the U.S. and Canada, but one almost completely foreign to the wider sport of soccer. During a period in which the major leagues in Germany, Italy and France have been dominated by one team, the first-division in Spain controlled by two powerhouse clubs with a third acting as an occasional interloper, and the top-flight in England shaped by a pair of teams, MLS, as always, has stood out for both its equality in individual years and volatility between seasons.

In the last 10 years, seven different MLS teams have won the Supporters’ Shield, the trophy given to the team with the most regular season points. The New York Red Bulls are the only team with multiple shields in that span (they’ve won it three times since 2012, though they haven’t even advanced to an MLS Cup in that span). MLS Cup has been won by eight different clubs in that period, with the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders the only two to claim the league’s biggest prize more than once since 2012. In all of the big five European leagues, just one club has won at least five of the last 10 championships. 

Parity in MLS runs far deeper than the major trophies, though. Broadly speaking, the league is bunched together more tightly in individual seasons, and features more mobility across different campaigns, than any of the big five European leagues. 

Over the last five seasons, the average annual gap in points per game between the first- and last-place teams in MLS and the five European leagues has been roughly the same, but in terms of points per game, MLS has the smallest standard deviation, the smallest disparity between squads that finished at the 25th and 75th percentile of the final standings and the smallest Gini coefficient, which measures concentration/dispersion of a population of measured values. MLS also has a significantly smaller range in average final goal difference between the first- and last-place teams than any of the other leagues, even when controlling for season length. Liga MX was a closer comparison to MLS than any of the European leagues. All of that confirms what we pretty much already knew: MLS teams are, in the main, grouped closer together than teams in the biggest European leagues.

There’s also a lot more movement up and down the table between seasons in MLS than there is in the big five European circuits. In the five seasons from 2017-2021, MLS teams, on average, moved six places per season in the final standings. That figure ranged from 2.99 to 3.91 in the European leagues. Even accounting for the fact that MLS includes more teams than those leagues, that’s a significant disparity. 

In the last five years, MLS has had 14 different clubs finish in the top-five of the regular season standings, a markedly higher percentage of top-five finishers than any of the European leagues had during that span. In fact, seven different MLS teams finished in the top five in at least one season and the bottom five in at least one other at some point in the last five years. That only happened five times total in the big five European leagues over that period — twice in the Bundesliga and three times in Ligue 1.