Even a place like the Voyageurs forums, usually the best place to go for news and views on Canadian soccer, has threads that follow this pattern.
A discussion on whether the Canadian cup tournament, currently known officially as the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, though referred to by many others at the Voyageurs Cup, should be expanded to include more teams mutated into a debate of the relative strength of the USL and MLS. It had something to do with a suggestion that Toronto FC, as a member of the better league, should get a bye into the later rounds of the competition.
It is taken for granted by most that MLS is stronger than USL-1 (formerly the A-League). In the Canadian context, it is not as clear, since Vancouver and Montreal are perennially among the strongest franchises in USL-1, while Toronto FC has been decidedly mediocre, at least on the pitch.
And since teams from these leagues don't compete in a single-table or promotion-relegation system, it's hard to compare. All there is to go on is results of American teams going head to head in the US Open Cup.
Without going into too much detail, I was waiting for yesterday evening's episodes of Scrubs to finish downloading so I could watch them before bed. I used that time to get into the numbers a bit, and see how well MLS and A-League/USL teams fared head-to-head.
The results, in brief:
|Year||MLS wins||USL wins|
A 70-32 record (all extra time games and shootout results could have been counted as ties, which would have narrowed the spread a bit), seems like pretty convincing evidence in favour of MLS. (A more detailed version of the spreadsheet, including all the matchups, is available here).
But is it enough to draw any conclusions? Likely not. To argue that this places USL in a clear subordinate position, like a second division, you'd have to look at European cup competitions and see how 2nd tier teams fare against those of the top flight, and see if the numbers compare. And I haven't the time to do that. ***
There is also evidence that the stable clubs in USL do pretty well. Rochester, Charleston, Minnesota, and Seattle all had records near the .500 mark. In the last 5 years, when USL-1 has become a much stronger division that it has been in the past, the win-loss record for MLS in these matches is 24-16 (a 60% winning rate).
My own conclusions are really only matters of opinion. MLS is clearly a better league than USL. I don't think anybody would argue the point. (Are franchises really with $40M? Hell, no. But that's another discussion).
But the gap between the top teams in MLS and the top teams in USL-1 is smaller than the gap between the top teams in MLS and the bottom teams in MLS. In other words, the best USL-1 sides (Vancouver, Montreal, a few others) are better than the worst in MLS. If they played in that league, they wouldn't finish last. And for me, that means a player is better off being a starter in USL than a bench player in MLS.
There is still some riffraff in the USL-1 division that will almost always lose to MLS sides. But there is some quality (Charleston, for example) that will always compete.
Care to argue the point?
Remember, in Canadian competitive matches between USL and MLS sides, each league has won and lost once, with 2 draws.
*** I flexed my academic muscles this morning and plowed through a whole lot of the work that I needed to complete, so I had a few moments to spare to look at how a few other lower divisions have fared.
I looked at the DFB Pokal competition of 2007-08 and 2006-07, particularly because that country is thought to have one of the strongest second divisions among European nations.
I went pretty quickly, so I can't be entirely sure of the numbers (I had to look up each team to see which division they were playing in at the time), but I know that they are close. In head-to-head match ups between 1. Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga teams, the results are:
|Season||1. Bundesliga||2. Bundesliga|
The 73% winning percentage is better than the 68% rate enjoyed by MLS teams in US Open Cup competition, and significantly better than the 60% clip that MLS teams have shown over the last 5 seasons. But this is a situation of a sample size that is far too small to provide any statistically valuable information.