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MLS can take pride in its parity

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

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Real Salt Lake's Tony Beltran defends Portland Timbers' Kalif Alhassan during the MLS Western Conference Championship. …

Not even its biggest fan would suggest Major League Soccer's playing level is close to the Premier League in England or La Liga in Spain.

However, as this year's season concludes with Saturday's championship game between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, MLS boasts one peculiarity that many of the world's biggest leagues can only envy.

Parity.

This season, parity in MLS reached an extraordinary level. Sporting K.C. and RSL both finished second in their respective conferences, but there was little to choose between a swathe of teams on both sides of the country.

The New York Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield, which is awarded to the top finisher in the regular season, but the team's tally of 59 points was just one ahead of Sporting K.C. In the West, the conference's top two of the Portland Timbers (57) and RSL (56) were just a shade behind. In all, the top 13 of the 19 teams in MLS were separated by just 11 points at the end of a season that spanned 34 games each and began back in March.

MLS commissioner Don Garber, who spent 16 years with the National Football League before swapping the pigskin for the beautiful game in 1999, believes the level playing field can only help the product.

"I believe the NFL is the most popular league in the world for a reason," Garber said recently. "And that's that every fan knows at the beginning of the season that their team has a chance to go to the Super Bowl."

Whether a Jacksonville Jaguars diehard could have genuinely held such a belief this year would depend on that individual's particular level of delusion, but it is easy to see Garber's point that parity helps sustain interest for all.

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Despite the global popularity of the Premier League, it cannot boast anything like equality. Last season's champion Manchester United finished with 89 points, 11 clear of its nearest challenger, local rival Manchester City. To compare with MLS, Stoke City, the 13th-place finisher, was an eye-watering 47 points behind.In Spain, there was even less parity, with Barcelona beating Real Madrid to the Primera Division crown by 15 points. Real Sociedad, whose fourth-place finish was enough for a Champions League spot, sat way back on 66 points.

Such situations are replicated elsewhere. In Germany, Bayern Munich's magnificent season that included Champions League glory saw it win the Bundesliga title from Borussia Dortmund by 25 points, clinching the title in early April – the earliest in German soccer history. With no playoff system, late-season drama was utterly absent.

Some use the parity in MLS as a stick to beat it with, arguing that dominant teams that become iconic brands are a positive thing for the European leagues. But for a competition such as MLS that is still less than two decades old and relies on a core of wealthy and savvy franchise owners, such a monopoly favoring a select few simply would not work.

In Europe, the rich get richer and, therefore, get better. Huge guaranteed payouts for reaching the Champions League have created a caste system of haves and have-nots.

Only four teams have won the last 18 championships in England. Real Madrid and Barcelona have occupied the top two positions in Spain every season for the past nine, with the sole exception of 2007-08 when Villarreal over-achieved its way into second place. Bayern Munich has finished outside the top three in the Bundesliga only once in the last 17 years and has won 10 titles in that time.

The victors celebrate every year, but for countless smaller clubs the best that can be hoped for is another campaign of mid-table mediocrity and the here-we-go-again blues.

That won't be the case at Sporting Park this weekend. Kansas City prides itself on having one of the proudest fan bases in MLS and wants some tangible reward for an impressive business structure that has seen it grow steadily, build an impressive stadium facility and create a cohesive squad that relies more on togetherness than star names.

The club won the MLS Cup in 2000, back when it was still known as the Kansas City Wizards and when current head coach Peter Vermes was still a player.

"It's totally different to 2000, in every way shape and form," Vermes told MLSsoccer.com. "Our sport has grown nationally. There is a different buzz from that perspective. Then you talk about here – this is truly Soccer City USA."

Starting from Kansas City's 2000 triumph, MLS had eight different champions in 11 years, despite only having 10 teams in the league for part of that time.

RSL is one of the recent champions, having lifted the trophy in 2009 thanks to an upset win over a Los Angeles Galaxy side featuring David Beckham and Landon Donovan. Several key members of that championship team, such as U.S. national team squad members Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, remain.

"When you look at the state of league and clubs, there is more parity and more pressure on winning than ever before," midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. "You see changes all over the league and a lot of turnover. Having a core group here that is familiar and knows the system makes things comfortable."

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