Yesterday, NewYorkRedBulls.com posted an article that posited a debate that has emerged recently in the New York Red Bulls camp: is it more important to win the Supporter’s Shield or the MLS Cup? This debate stems from the comments that head coach Hans Backe made back in January when he stated that he desired the Supporters’ Shield over the MLS Cup.
For those who are wondering what the difference is, the matter is simple: the Supporters’ Shield is awarded to the team with the best regular season record as determined by the points they have accumulated after all games of the season have been played. The MLS Cup, conversely, is awarded to the team that wins the MLS playoff tournament that takes place at the end of the regular season; it is the equivalent of winning the World Series or the Stanley Cup.
Both awards have their place in MLS, and both are important for no other reason than winning either one grants the recipient entry into the following season’s CONCACAF Champions’ League, pitting MLS’s best against the best of the rest of North and Central America.
Much of this debate stems from how soccer plays out in other soccer leagues, mostly notably in the English Premier League. There exists no playoff system for the EPL like there does here for almost all US sports; the team with the best record by the season’s conclusion is awarded the Cup, and that is that.
While this may seem uneventful and even anticlimactic to us, there is a degree of validity to using this kind of system. It does remove the tension and excitement that emerges in American sports when the best teams of the regular season duke it out in a knockout playoff series where the winner moves on and the losers go home. But, at the same time, it is arguably a better test of skill and endurance for the duration of the regular season. The best teams of the season do not necessarily win the playoffs; the best team in the playoffs usually win the playoffs, and there is a clear distinction there. This is more true in playoff series that pit teams in short- or one-game series matches. Simply put, playoff series are more vulnerable to oddities and random outcomes that are avoided in a 34 game regular season.
I think it becomes inarguable, then, that the Supporters’ Shield is a much more significant accomplishment than winning the MLS Cup. It is a testament of ultimate endurance and consistence during the course of a grueling regular season; it is a measure of depth of a team as it will inevitably have to combat injuries to important players to continue its dominance in the league.
This is not to say that the MLS Cup is worthless, but simply that it holds less weight than the Supporters’ Shield in determining the best team for an entire season. The MLS cup is important for another reason though: as stated earlier, the winner moves on to the CONCACAF Champions’ League which is a significant accomplishment in and of itself. The expanded playoff bracket gives teams that are middle of the pack a chance to compete at the highest level and grants another avenue to be accepted into the higher levels of play. It adds a layer of excitement and tension that is admittedly absent in leagues like the English Premier League; it brings one of the most enjoyable parts of American sports into soccer while providing a second avenue for a broader range of teams to make the CONCACAF Champions’ League. And even if the best team does not win the MLS Cup, who does not like a good Cinderella story?
Both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup are important, but for different reasons: while the Supporters’ Shield rewards the best team in the league with a trophy and space in the CONCACAF Champions’ League regardless of their performance in the playoffs, the MLS Cup offers an avenue for teams on the bubble to have a shot at achieving glory and their own spot in the CONCACAF Champions’ League.
If I were to change one thing about the way MLS does its qualifications for CONCACAF CL, it would be to reward the top two teams in the regular season with entry into the CL with a third spot given to the MLS Cup champions rather than giving that third spot to the MLS Cup runner-up. Not only will this create higher stakes in the playoffs (most especially in the final round), it will make sure that the very best teams are representing MLS in the Champions’ League instead of the best team and two other teams of varying quality. But I digress.
So should the Red Bulls go for the Supporters’ Shield of MLS Cup? Why not both? I would feel considerably more confident in the team’s chances in the MLS playoffs knowing that they were the best team in the league for 2011 – wouldn’t you? Go for both, there’s no reason not to be the best team in the league and to win the MLS playoffs. But, the more important thing is to leave the league with some silver and a ticket to the Champions’ League. For me, it does not matter how they punch their ticket, so long as they do.
So does it really matter which one is “better”? Both awards are legitimate, important, and grant the victors progress to the next round. They both tell different stories: one team was the best team for the season, the other teams performed strongly in the regular season and were able to beat the best in a short series to qualify. Either way, the goal is the same: to qualify for the Champions’ League.