One look at the table(s) in MLS standings and you come away with a peculiar observation: at any time in the past month any one of 5 to 6 teams in each conference could have won their group and at least 6 overall teams could have won the Supporter's Shield. That's how small the margin of error is for each team in the league.
Alexi Lalas once put it this way: MLS is the most competitive league in the world. Now while those are very big words and 99.9% of the soccer world would disagree, there is a thread of truth to his claim. Unlike most European nations, not much is settled in terms of championship this late in the season. In England, Spain and Italy usually the championship is already spoken for a month in advance or is between only two or three teams with two months to go. In Spain, for instance, the choices are Barcelona or Real Madrid--always.
How does MLS do this? First, salary cap. The league contains how much each team can spend, with the only loophole being the "Designated Player" or "Beckham Rule." It has worked, for the most part, to buoy the attendance figures and increase quality in players. If it really affected who wins the league then we wouldn't be talking about Salt Lake winning in 2009 and Colorado in 2010.
The second is continuity in coaching. Most teams refrain from sacking their managers even when times are tough. Such is the case for coaches like Sigi Shmid (Seattle), Schellas Hyndman (Dallas), Ben Olsen (DC), Frank Klopas (Chicago) and even Bruce Arena when LA failed to win in 2009 and 2010 even though they were arguably the best team in the league.
This year the contest comes down to the big-spending LA and New York, new big-spenders Seattle, and more blue collar teams like Kansas City, Salt Lake and Portland. The Timbers, in particular, have lost only 5 games and yet they have not clinched the Supporter's Shield because they were tied at home to Real Salt Lake. The Galaxy have also not won key matches and now are out of the running for winning the Shield.
Another fact remains: clubs like Colorado, Montreal, Chicago and New England could still win the MLS Cup by virtue of the playoff system. Such was the case with Real Salt Lake in 2009. What's to say this can't happen again.
There are two key components to the parity in the league: the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup. Most critics of the American playoff setup would find it sacrilege to allow lower-seeded teams to win the league. But to those of us that understand the game and understand what the Shield stands for then this argument does not hold up. The Shield is the league and the Cup is another type of tournament, e.g. FA Cup in England. This may not be as apparent in the way the tournament is marketed but it is another trophy and a ticket to the Champions League.
So there you have it. Right now, Salt Lake, Portland, New York or Kansas City can win the league and any one of ten teams that advance to the playoffs can win the Cup. How's that for parity?