MLS Cup is weird. It’s a 14-team tournament that includes somewhere between three and 11 teams that really don’t deserve to be in the running for a league championship. It feels like it shouldn’t be that meaningful, like it should be almost an end-of-season exhibition.
And yet: “It doesn’t mean anything without winning MLS Cup.”
That’s what Carlos Vela said after LAFC clinched the Supporters’ Shield.
It’s hard to imagine him saying that after lifting any other trophy. To my knowledge, none of the Vancouver or Orlando City players said the same after their teams won the Canadian Championship or U.S. Open Cup, respectively. I’m certain nobody from Seattle said it after winning the CONCACAF Champions League. Campeones Cup, even the once and future Leagues Cup – no other trophy in North American soccer is seen as a consolation prize.
It’s a weird trophy too, the Supporters’ Shield. Newer fans might not know the history of MLS’s regular-season trophy, so here’s a quick recap:
The trophy didn’t exist when the league launched in 1996. The idea for the trophy was born on message boards (kids, ask your parents what message boards were) after the league’s first season; it took fan groups a couple of years to raise enough money to commission and create the trophy themselves, after the league declined to get involved.
It’s also strange because MLS has always been separated into conferences or divisions, and now has a wildly unbalanced schedule. LAFC and Philadelphia, the two teams that tied on points for this year’s edition (LAFC had more wins, the tiebreaker), played only eight of the fourteen teams in the other’s conference. (As luck would have it, they did play each other; fittingly, it was a 2-2 draw.)
Without a balanced schedule, the Supporters’ Shield doesn’t make complete sense. It’s probably instructive that only one of the other major pro leagues in North America has an equivalent, besides the NWSL (and kudos to you if you knew that it’s the NHL President’s Trophy).
Even so, a single-elimination tournament feels like a terrible way to crown a league champion. If you take solely intra-conference games into account, Inter Miami would have finished 21 points behind Montreal in the standings this year (in a 24-game season), yet they begin the playoffs this week needing the same number of wins to lift MLS Cup.
Maybe the best illustration of this is that, in the last 19 seasons, only three teams have managed the Supporters’ Shield/MLS Cup double.
Being good for an entire season is no guarantee of winning MLS Cup, and being good enough to win MLS Cup doesn’t mean that the winner is the best team in the league.
I make this comparison solely to note that the main good thing about MLS Cup, and the playoffs, is not that they identify the best team. If MLS wanted to identify the best team, for an entire season, they’d play some kind of balanced schedule and then award a trophy to first place, just like nearly every other soccer league on the planet.
The main benefit of MLS Cup is that it gives the league something to play for, and for the entire season.
Take MNUFC. In their current four-year playoff run, they’ve finished seventh, ninth, eleventh, and eleventh again in the overall standings. They’ve been 19, 13 (in a short season), 24, and 19 points away from winning the Supporters’ Shield.
But in every one of those seasons, they’ve had something to play for down the stretch. Whether it was playoff seeding or, the past two seasons, making it into the playoffs at all, the Loons have gone down to the wire every year.
This doesn’t exactly make MLS unique. There are other leagues – including (gasp) European leagues – that have some kind of playoff setup. And even the self-proclaimed Best Leagues In The World are chockablock with consolation prizes for the runners-up, in the form of spots in the following season’s European competition.
I guess what I’m saying here is, regardless of how the regular season went, it’s a new season now. There’s no reason that Carlos Vela should be unhappy with “only” winning a Shield this year, but there’s also no reason that MLS Cup should cease to exist; the playoffs make the league much, much better.
Let’s appreciate them both. The second season begins this weekend.