Leicester City may no longer be alone at the top of the Premier League standings, but the club is still among the favorites to vie for the EPL title this spring. What once looked like a hot start destined to fizzle out has turned into an extraordinarily impressive season that in a way has turned the world’s most famous soccer league on its head. It’s as if Chelsea’s incredible fall toward the bottom of the league required an equal but opposite action in the form of Leicester City’s rise to prominence.
If anyone had predicted this a year ago, or even over the summer offseason, he’d have been called crazy. It’s almost difficult to remember now, but heading into the 2015-16 season the goal was survival, as Betfair’s page on Leicester City so bluntly put it. This club was clinging to life last season, hovering in and around the relegation zone for much of the year before riding a strong finish to the 14th position in the tables at season’s end. Now they’ve amassed 40 points through 20 matches and sit above the likes of perennial powerhouses Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea.
The interesting thing about all this from an American point of view is that Leicester had previously been just the sort of team that often kept conversations about how MLS compares to the EPL afloat. A couple years ago, Bleacher Report shared a fairly detailed examination of how top MLS clubs (in 2013) could hope to compete in the EPL. It concluded that in all likelihood these clubs could only hope to “stave off relegation” at best. The bulk of MLS was at the time most comparable to the mid- to lower-level English Championship, with top teams possibly approximating the level it takes to hover between this lower league and the EPL. In other words, one way of looking at it is that the best clubs in the MLS might be roughly as good as Leicester City was expected to be this season if they competed in England.
So just for fun, it now seems only logical to ask: would this year’s surprising version of Leicester City win MLS Cup? Would they dominate? Unfortunately there’s no way to answer this question with much of a degree of accuracy unless you feel like going through an exhausting process of video game simulations or something of the like. But let’s try to unravel the question anyway.
It may seem a little bit dramatic, but let’s go ahead and eliminate the bottom 60 percent of MLS. Most any reasonable comparison of the American and English leagues shows that only the very best MLS clubs could hope to hang with the top-flight English teams, so there’s really no point in discussing anyone beneath this level stopping Leicester City en route to a hypothetical MLS title. That leaves the top eight clubs for competition, which going by last season’s standings means: the Red Bulls, FC Dallas, Whitecaps FC, Portland Timbers, Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy, and D.C. United.
From that group, we’ll start with the two that finished tied for the lead in points. The New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas both managed impressive 60-point totals through 32 matches, and they were the top class of the MLS throughout the season. Of the two, FC Dallas would likely have been the easiest matchup for Leicester City. It was surprisingly weak away from home (5-8-4), which indicates a vulnerability they couldn’t afford against the English side. The Red Bulls, meanwhile, were more of a high-risk, high-reward team, not unlike an American version of Manchester City from recent seasons. They led MLS with 62 goals but also managed to lose 10 matches en route to their 60-point finish. It’s as likely that Leicester City would struggle in a given match with the Red Bulls than most MLS sides.
If Dallas doesn’t look particularly competitive with Leicester City, most of the rest of the teams aren’t worth discussing in great detail after all. But three more bear mentioning for specific reasons: the Timbers because they ultimately won the league, and the Galaxy and Sounders because of their greater international recognition.
Portland, frankly, was an underwhelming champion that played decent but not great soccer throughout the season and got hot at the right time in the playoffs. But the Sounders and Galaxy would theoretically challenge Leicester City, if for no other reasons than pride, resources, and quality. Both clubs feature world-class stars past their primes (Clint Dempsey for Seattle, and Steven Gerrard for LA), and both clubs would come closer than most to spending what it might take to match Leicester’s superior budget. To be clear, the very worst of EPL teams and Football League teams fighting for promotion spend more than any one MLS team on their rosters, which is one reason MLS is at such a fundamental disadvantage. But as arguably the two most prominent clubs in the league in terms of international attention, Seattle and LA could possibly be expected to upgrade their rosters if faced with the competition of Leicester City.
Ultimately it’s a subjective conversation. While specific tactics and styles could be looked at as well, they’d really only complicate a question that’s tough to grapple with in the first place. In the end I’d argue that Leicester City—at least this year’s version—would certainly compete for an MLS title and probably win it. But I’m less confident that they’d dominate, with one or two U.S. clubs boasting the quality to compete with them, and another few having the resources to reach that level.