The Throw-In: Parity? Numbers suggest we're headed toward the best finish in MLS history

Throw-In Zusi Seattle

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The buzzword of the day in Major League Soccer is “parity.”

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Merriam-Webster defines it as “the quality or state of being equal or equivalent.”

If you Google it along with “MLS,” you get a dizzying array of results that run the gamut from overwhelmingly positive to disparagingly negative. Is it a good thing that five teams have had their hands on the Supporters’ Shield race from midsummer on? I love it; others hate it.

But from a strictly competitive sense, there’s not much of an argument: We are in what is perhaps the greatest playoff race in league history. Heading into Week 31 of the 2013 season, consider the following facts:

The spread between Shield leaders and last seed is flirting with an all-time low. The 10 teams that are currently “above the red line” for playoff spots are separated by a mere 11 points. It’s been lower only once over the past decade – a mere nine points separated Shield-winning Columbus from party-crashing Real Salt Lake in 2009.

Otherwise, it hasn’t even been close, averaging around 17 points. And since MLS added the Knockout Round in 2011, the spread between Shield winners and last seed has been even more severe: more than 20 points the past two seasons.

More teams will be in contention until the final day of the season than ever before. Currently only three teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. Mathematically, that number will remain the same at the end of this weekend regardless of the results. And the odds are good that those same 16 teams could still be in contention heading into Week 33.

Why is that mind-blowing? The previous high mark for amount of teams still alive two weeks before the end of the season was in 2011 … when a relatively paltry 10 teams were still in it.

This could be the first season where not a single team has clinched a playoff berth with three weeks to go. Sunday’s clash of conference leaders could determine the first team to qualify for the 2013 MLS Cup Playoffs, but there are way too many variables.

Either New York or Seattle – but not both – can clinch a berth in their matchup (Sunday, 9 pm ET, ESPN). But that depends on the results of four other games going the right way before that showdown at CenturyLink Field. So in other words, the odds of either team clinching this weekend are not great. (Read the complete scenario here.)

Since 2006, there’s never been a scenario that not one team has booked a postseason berth with four weeks to go. But no one into the pool with three weeks to go? It’s unprecedented.

This is the closest Supporters’ Shield race ever. If Sporting KC defeat Philadelphia on Friday night (8 pm ET, NBCSN), they’ll become the fourth team to take their turn atop the overall MLS table since September 1. There’s only been one other occasion with the Shield lead changing hands that many times this late in the season: 2004, when Kansas City and Colorado both took the pole position before Columbus ultimately claimed it.

So what does this all mean? Well, we’re looking at a finish to the regular season that might be as dramatic or even more so than 2009. That final weekend of the season saw four teams heading into Saturday’s slate needing a single victory to guarantee their place in the postseason … and none did.

The most dramatic result was Toronto FC bombing out to the lowly post-Juan Carlos Osorio Red Bulls by a 5-0 score line at Giants Stadium, completing a total collapse. (To this day, TFC have never come closer to the postseason.)

That day also saw Real Salt Lake book a playoff berth with a win over their archrivals for the second consecutive year. RSL’s 3-0 victory over Colorado at Rio Tinto Stadium saw the Rocky Mountain Cup rivals finish the season equal on points. But the Claret-and-Cobalt held the tiebreaker and clinched the spot – then went on to complete the most surprising playoff run in league history.

Less than 24 hours later, in the regular season’s final match at Crew Stadium, the New England Revolution booked their final playoff spot under Steve Nicol with a 1-0 win over Shield-winning Columbus thanks to a 79th-minute free kick by Jeff Larentowicz. To boot, that result officially eliminated Colorado.

So is parity a good thing or a bad thing? With the standings suggesting a finish like that is in the cards over the next three weeks, I’m not sure the answer matters.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.