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MLS: CROWN YOUR TRUE CHAMPION

Seattle Sounders FC bowed to the Philadelphia Union, 2-0, at CenturyLink Field, ending Seattle’s bid to head off the Los Angeles Galaxy for the 2011 MLS Supporters’ Shield.

With two rounds remaining in the regular season, the Galaxy leads all teams with an insurmountable 64 points (18-4-10).  The Sounders, second in the Western Conference, trail by seven points (16-7-9).  Real Salt Lake (15-11-6, 51 points) is third in the West, and the next-best club, fourth overall, is the Eastern Conference-leading Union (11-7-14, 47 points). 

Los Angeles thus joins DC United as the only team to top the league in points four times. [October 8]

Comment:  Over its 16-season lifespan, Major League Soccer has repeatedly caved to the traditionalists.  It’s time for one more cave.

Quite simply, beginning next season, it should declare the Supporters’ Shield winner–the club with the best regular-season record–the one and true league champion, and stop pretending that the MLS Cup winner is somehow the best team in MLS.  We’re all grown-ups here; we can handle it, just as we’ve handled the concept of ties and game clocks that count up, not down.

A post-match comment by Sounders coach Sigi Schmid perhaps best illustrates the current Supporters’ Shield/MLS Cup dichotomy:  “You look at who won the MLS Cup last year, Colorado.  Did they win the Supporters’ Shield?  No.  Who won the MLS Cup the year before?  Salt Lake.  Did they win the Supporters’ Shield?  No.  So maybe winning the Supporters’ Shield isn’t all that necessary to win the MLS Cup, and at the end of the day that’s our goal.” 

Such an adjustment in emphasis and perception might not have been possible until recently.  In the beginning, MLS was trying to woo a fan base accustomed to American sports in which teams shift late in a season from a league format to a knockout format (gee, kinda like the World Cup), and it all ends with a climactic game or series.  Nowadays, many of those spectators at MLS matches know full well that the league is the league and a cup is a cup–the English F.A. Cup winner, the team that hoists Spain’s King Juan Carlos Cup, Germany’s DFB-Pokal Sieger, is oftentimes not the best team in the country. 

And seldom is the MLS Cup winner.  Only five times has the team with the best record in MLS gone on to win the MLS Cup (1997 and 1999 DC United, 2000 Kansas City Wizards, 2002 Galaxy, 2008 Columbus Crew).  The MLS Cup is what it is:  a crap shoot to which even the ninth- and 10th-worst teams in the final standings are invited to bring their bankroll and toss the dice.  In the end, 67 percent of the time, the team that didn’t win the Supporters’ Shield but best embraced a do-or-die atmosphere and capitalized on a break or two, or three, has taken home the MLS Cup and the perception that it is somehow the league’s finest.

More important, MLS has gone to a balanced schedule after years in which it cut travel costs by having its teams play more games within its own region.  Now, more than ever, the playing field has been leveled:  Each team plays the other twice, home and away, and that top point-getter did it without beating up on a weak conference.

There are concrete ways in which MLS can make this shift.  At present, the Supporters’ Shield winner gets a nifty trophy, a pairing against the last MLS Cup qualifier, home-field advantage through the playoffs up to the final itself, and an undisclosed amount of cash to help it beef up its roster for the CONCACAF Champions League, for which it qualifies automatically.  But MLS should drop the other shoe and declare that team the host of the MLS Cup final, regardless of whether it wins its way there.  So far, the organizational geniuses at MLS headquarters have done a great job of staging all manner of galas and special events when the site of the MLS Cup has been pre-determined by months.  Surely they can do a very good job when that site isn’t known for sure until four, five or six weeks in advance.

In the end, MLS gains credibility and loses nothing.  Its best team, after nearly three dozen weeks of competition, is properly identified and recognized.  Its post-season last-chance saloon for also-rans still stands.  Its best team has a well-deserved advantage in winning a league-cup double.   And MLS still ends it all with a climactic match made for TV.

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