When comparing club soccer teams, it’s fairly easy to figure out who is the best of the best. The most talented players in the world play in a handful of European leagues, and the best teams of these leagues face off each year in the Champions League.
Judging below this level is more difficult.
How do you compare the English club Arsenal, which got through the group stage of the most recent Champions League but lost in the first round of the knockouts, with Celta Vigo of Spain, a semifinalist in the Europa League? And what about the European teams that didn’t play anyone outside their nation’s borders — like Stoke City in England and Freiburg in Germany?
Even more difficult is comparing across continents. How well would the best MLS clubs do if they played in the Championship, the English second division?
FiveThirtyEight has a new way of answering these questions. The global club soccer rankings compare 426 men’s teams that compete in leagues across Europe, North America and South America. As you might expect, the top three are Real Madrid of Spain’s La Liga, Bayern Munich of Germany’s Bundesliga and Barcelona, also of La Liga. It gets more interesting from there.
The English Premier League is the only league among the 24 that are part of FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer predictions that has six teams in the top 20 of the global team rankings (although it has no teams in the overall top five). However, these rankings suggest that the Premier League’s also-rans would not compete particularly well with the mid-table of other major leagues. Everton, the seventh EPL side, sit 47th. This places the Toffees behind 10 German Bundesliga clubs and 13 teams from La Liga. Even Atalanta, the seventh club in Italy’s Serie A, places above Everton.
To explain why this happens requires some discussion of the method itself. League strength is compared in two ways; first, based on how well clubs from different leagues have done in direct competition with one another, such as in the Champions League. And second, the estimated market value of a team’s players, drawn from the website Transfermarkt. The former factor — head-to-head competition — receives much more emphasis when leagues play each other frequently, as teams from the top European leagues do in the Champions League and Europa League. That gives the big European leagues a more natural hierarchy.
The relatively poor showing of the Premier League, compared with La Liga and the Bundesliga, is notable particularly because of the massive economic advantage that the English league holds over its continental competitors. The Premier League’s domestic TV contract pays in the range of a billion dollars more per year than Spain’s or Germany’s.1 The estimated values of Premier League clubs run about 20 percent higher than the values of clubs in the Bundesliga or Serie A and about 10 percent higher than La Liga. But these values have not translated into strong performances by Premier League teams in European competition. Judged over recent inter-league competition, La Liga’s performance has been about 27 percent better than the Premier League’s, while the Bundesliga’s performance has been 20 percent better. Despite its financial advantage, the Premier League has won only one European Cup in the past four years, compared with seven for La Liga sides. During that time, 19 teams from La Liga have advanced to the quarterfinals of the Europa or Champions League, and 10 Bundesliga sides have done the same. Only six Premier League clubs, barely more than one per year, have advanced to the final eight of the major club competitions.
Just as Premier League sides come in below similar clubs from Germany and Spain because of the English league’s struggles in European competition, the continuing failure of MLS clubs to advance in the CONCACAF Champions League leaves American and Canadian sides behind the best teams in Mexico. Other than Toronto FC (171st), no MLS side places above the top 10 teams from Liga MX.
The rankings further suggest that the best clubs from South America, such as Argentina’s Boca Juniors (81st) and Brazil’s Corinthians (88th) and Cruzeiro (99th) could hang with the teams at the bottom of the Premier League such as Watford (93rd) and Crystal Palace (102nd). Meanwhile, MLS teams would generally fall in either the second or third divisions in the English pyramid. NYCFC — the second-highest ranking MLS side, at 259th — rates below the top 10 teams in the Championship.
MLS still has a long way to go to match up with the top levels of club soccer. These ratings and rankings will move as the various international tournaments play out through the fall, winter and spring. If sides from the Premier League or MLS mean to move up the rankings, they will need to have better results in direct competition with sides from other leagues.