A cursory glance over WPS’ current league standings reveals just how competitive this league is. Just five points separate 1st and 7th place. Every team is stocked with both homegrown and international talent. Any team can be beaten on its day (perhaps the Beat in particular). Every team looks primed for the playoffs. It makes predicting WPS matches as futile as predicting, well, a soccer match. A professional sports league must have parity amongst all its teams because it keeps its fans interested. There’s constantly something to report on when every team is at an equal competitive level. This is all a good thing, right.
Or is it?
With WPS’ hyperactive competitive balance, some things that are sacred to sports fandom could be lost. Like the upset and the underdog and the Cinderella. Sky Blue FC was last year’s Cinderella, not only because they rose from extraordinary circumstances to streak through the playoffs but because they beat Goliath.
At this stage, there doesn’t seem to be a Goliath. There isn’t that one dominant team that is feared league-wide. It’s quite early, but there probably isn’t going to be another Los Angeles Sol in spite of Albertin Montoya’s loftiest ambitions. So why is this a problem? If seemingly good teams continue to fall to seemingly weaker competition and seemingly weak teams continue to kill off seemingly good teams, then is there really any difference between a good team and a bad team? And where’s the surprise? Without Goliath, there’s no stage for that fantastic upset, that glorious moment of giant-killing when the league’s Super Club (as Alexi Lalas would affectionately say) is vanquished by the basement-dwellers. If every team is on equal footing, doesn’t that kind of mean that every team is merely average?
And if this is the case, then it is perhaps not that conducive to WPS’ current playoff structure. This point has been regularly raised regarding WPS’ playoff setup where the regular season is technically kind of gifted with home field advantage and a bye from the playoffs. But the Sol’s gift box contained a lump of coal inside, as they were knocked off by a team that was better than them on that day but not over the course of a season.
Soccer is a pretty capricious sport and the concept of playoffs is a pretty capricious competitive format. Add the two of those together and you get Sky Blue FC. You get Real Salt Lake. No one would ever accuse either club of being the best in their respective league like you would if Manchester United win the Premier League or if Real Madrid can hold off Barcelona in La Liga. But yet SBFC and RSL are as much of champions as are Manchester United or Real Madrid. By name at least. They’re champions of the moment, not of the previous six months. That’s what too much parity gets you.
Perhaps a single-table would actually be more fitting for a league like WPS, where in which the team that finishes with the most points at the end of the regular season is declared champion. If WPS is going to remain as maddeningly competitive as this, it could perhaps double the excitement by the end of the campaign. I know what you’re thinking at this moment because I’m thinking it too. But I assure you I’m not a Eurosnob (merely an Anglosnob). Something so diametrically opposed to the American sports credo would probably never fly, particularly not in a league like WPS that struggles to gain legitimacy as it is.
But a single-table could work because it would reward the first among equals. The champion wouldn’t necessarily be the most dominant team, but the team that scored a 100 in a league full of A’s. It would require craftiness, perseverance and consistency. All marks of a champion. No one would have any doubts of who the best team in the league was.
With a single-table you wouldn’t get a champion via a craps shoot of a regular season followed by a craps shoot of a postseason.
Now let’s take a step back. I, for one, don’t think it’s time to start ringing the bells calling for an overhaul of a system that’s only been in place for like nine months. Definitely not. I admire the risk and the novelty in the current playoff structure. It’s far too early to declare anything defective. And I kind of love the parity for the reasons listed in paragraph one. It makes WPS unique in a footballing landscape that traditionally features leagues dominated by one or two teams. And that just wouldn’t be any fun.
If anything I’m really pining for that one Goliath. One dominant team that will wreak havoc over the rest of the season (Atlanta Beat for a perfect May, June, July, August and September!). With a Goliath we could also have our Cinderella back.
Finally, there are also natural reasons for the abundance of parity. It doesn’t simply come down to tertiary causes like a College Draft, equal distribution of foreign players, a salary cap or roster number restrictions. The reasons are much more pragmatic than that. For one, the league is small. With just 8 teams it’s very likely that teams will consistently drop points to one another. A team that drops 30 points in a field of 8 competitors is very different from a team that drops 30 points in a field of 20 competitors. For another, the league is young. It’s still a newborn really. It takes many, many years to find that perfect balance that can enable the same team to dominate its league over and over again. Dynasties take time. Perhaps one day we’ll have our Machester United, our Arsenal Ladies, our Olympique Lyon, our Porto in WPS. But not after a year and a month.
There are certainly merits to having an ultra-competitive league and there are merits to having a league full of several classes. It comes down to personal preference. But either way I know I’ll be watching.
What are your thoughts? Is there really such thing as too much parity or does WPS have it just right?