I am just a supporter, one of many. However, as a supporter I feel it is my duty not only to promote the sport whenever possible but also to raise awareness of issues facing the game we love. So, I write this in order to speak out about one of the more pressing debates among Major League Soccer’s devout fans: the current state and ultimate fate of the Supporters’ Shield.
A quick review: the Shield, an award currently given to the team with the most points at the end of the MLS season, has a novel history of its own. When MLS first took the pitch in 1996, there was no such trophy. The concept of honoring the ‘regular season champion’ was not something the league embraced during its effort to endear soccer to the ‘average American sports fan.’ Instead, fundraising for such a trophy was undertaken by the fervent supporters of MLS clubs, and they are in fact the ones who award it. It was not until later that the league began recognizing it as a major trophy with cash and CONCACAF incentives.
Now, after we fans got a taste of the balanced schedule the past two years, and clubs got a lot more than just a taste of airplane food, Major League Soccer decreed that teams would play conference opponents three times and non-conference opponents once in the 2012 and 2013 seasons (with slight variations depending on which conference you’re in). This was done in order to alleviate the burden of travel in a league that spans a whole continent, and to promote regional rivalries, but this has also led to two problems. One is that head-to-head record is still the chief tiebreaker in a league where most teams will have played an odd number of times, giving some teams home-field advantage in a season series that could end up determining who goes to the playoffs and who doesn’t, among other things.
The other is that the value of one of the four major honors in North American soccer – the best regular season record – has been called into question. Because of the “3ish-and-1” format, the Shield winner and Shield runner-up will have played dramatically different schedules, resulting in charges of unfairness. Discussions between fans as to whether or not it’s time to retire the trophy have popped up in MLS-related social media discussions, article comment sections, and message board postings across the Internet. MLSsoccer.com writer Simon Borg famously declared, “The Shield is dead,” in a podcast with Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis, who himself said the Shield now “doesn’t make any sense,” and that “it’s something the league needs to review and probably get rid of.”
As already mentioned, the trophy is not the league’s to get rid of because it is bestowed by the supporters. However, the assessment that the sense behind it has been compromised is a somewhat valid one that needs to be addressed.
I read that piece by Gerald Barnhart above soon after it was first published. I considered it the best way to frame the modern trophy system in American and Canadian soccer, but I noticed that his list of ‘all-time’ majors only included MLS when in fact nationwide Division 1 soccer began in 1968 with the North American Soccer League. Considering that, the fact that the Shield had already been retroactively awarded in the past, and that Canada had its own domestic cup, I wondered what the table of all-time major honors looked like. So, I did what any nerd would do – I took to Wikipedia. At the time the encyclopedia article wasn’t very comprehensive, so, using Dave Litterer’s fantastic American Soccer History Archives as a main source, I compiled lists of the winners of the four majors. This was a tally of each league championship, best regular season record (or “league premiership,” taking a cue from our friends in the Australian A-League), national championship (US Open Cup or Canadian Voyageurs Cup), and CONCACAF championship. The results are in the article but aren’t necessarily relevant to this discussion; what is relevant is that this is our history despite the fact that only three times in 34 Division 1 seasons in North America has the schedule been balanced (1969, 2010, and 2011). Here you can even see a chart that details how unbalanced each previous MLS season has been along with the margin by which the Supporters’ Shield was decided that year. In an astonishing 8 times out of 14 unbalanced MLS seasons the trophy been decided by three points or less, with a reasonable argument to be made that the schedule differences between the two teams at the top could render a Shield victory ‘impure.’ The ‘purity’ of the accomplishment becomes even more questionable when retroactively assigning it to the top point totals from the NASL seasons, and when you remember the quirky points systems and tie-preventing measures used in American soccer’s past.
The point is that if the schedule being unbalanced once again means the Shield is now suddenly ‘dead,’ then it was never ‘alive’ to begin with. So whoever finishes with the top point total this season will not deserve the ire or sneers their claim as premier is sure to draw, because while it won’t be a perfectly sound accomplishment like the last two years, it certainly won’t be anything we haven’t seen before.
That isn’t to say that this season’s format isn’t particularly unbalanced, or that this isn’t an issue that needs to be addressed going forward. With more odd-numbered season series and weighting towards geography than ever before, it would be easy to say that MLS made an egregious mistake in sacrificing competition integrity for convenience. But that’s not the case; the travel problem facing MLS is not a mere inconvenience. It is instead a colossal obstacle in the way of raising the level of play in our league.
It’s also easy for fans to point to the competitive format systems in countries whose football we love watching as much as our own and say, ‘We should be like that.’ But it’s not that simple, the size of the United States and Canada won’t allow it. England is slightly smaller than Alabama. France and Ukraine, the two biggest countries entirely within continental Europe, are each smaller than Texas. Even the Russian Premier League doesn’t have the issues we do, with all but two of its teams in the same time zone compared to whole sections of our league being thousands of miles apart.
This is no ruse used to justify more money-making ‘rivalry’ games to the hardcore supporters MLS depends on. It is a legitimate problem that, when alleviated, will improve the product on the field we present to American soccer fans and the rest of the world. As Matt Doyle, analyst for MLSsoccer.com, wrote in a Reddit AMA a couple of weeks ago:
“All throughout the last two years, the competition committee has kept close tabs on what EVERYONE involved in the game thinks is the main problem, and the people who matter most – the people who actually play the game – said the travel was murder, and the only way around it was going to a conference schedule, and that doing so would drastically increase the quality of play.”
The thing is, none of this changes the fact that there is significant demand amongst supporters for a regular season that matters as well as official recognition of and respect for teams that work hard enough over the course of the year to earn the moniker ‘best team in the league.’ This is not borne out of a desire to emulate an idealized foreign league. It is about providing fairness and rewarding greatness. It is about making sure the Supporters’ Shield remains a cherished and respected major prize like the A-League’s Premiers’ Plate rather than a minor afterthought like the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy. Fans feel so strongly about this that one Vancouver Southsider even went to trouble of developing a mathematical model for a decreased-travel league-wide balanced schedule for 19 teams. So how do we reconcile the necessity of reducing travel with the desire to preserve or even enhance the prestige of one of North American soccer’s majors? The answer is both creative and simple.
Last month, LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena mused that it may be time to award two Supporters’ Shields, one for the Eastern Conference and one for the Western Conference. He has the right idea, but needs to go one step further. Awarding two Shields under the 2012 scheduling format would still not erase the fact that even teams in the same conference have considerably different schedules. However, in the new schedule that players, coaches, and executives are all satisfied with, teams do play all their conference opponents at least twice (once home, once away), just with a third game added onto the single game per non-conference opponent to help complete the 34-game slate. My proposal is that we keep the current schedule that keeps travel burdens down, but rearrange it so as to provide fans with the double round-robin they favor. A lesser problem, but an issue nonetheless, is that we would essentially be saying that conference regular season first-place finishes are now the same as being the league’s regular season champion, something that would wreak havoc on chronicling and interpreting of the history of the accomplishment in MLS, the old NASL, and even in the minor leagues with trophies like the USL’s Commissioner’s Cup. The solution?
Split the regular season into two phases, a step not at all unprecedented in global football, and rename each conference their own league (Eastern League, Western League) under the umbrella of Major League Soccer (much like the American League and National League under the umbrella of Major League Baseball). In the first phase, or “League Phase,” teams would just play opponents from their own league. In a ten-team league (which we can assume both conferences would be after we reach 20 teams) with a balanced schedule, that’s the first 18 weeks of the season. The final matchday (around early July based on this year’s start date) of the phase would see all games kickoff at the same time, and the team at the top of the table be awarded their league’s Supporters’ Shield with all the pomp and circumstance of a major trophy. Both league champions (or “premiers” if you prefer) would be awarded CONCACAF Champions League spots. After that, the “Cup Phase” of the regular season begins. Regular season records carry over from the first phase, and teams jockey for playoff spots, whatever the format of the playoffs may be. MLS could schedule the remaining portion of the schedule however they like with both interleague matchups and additional intraleague matchups, and we fans would have no room to complain because we already got our double round-robin. It would make sense and provide some semblance of fairness if the Cup Phase opponents were determined by previous season’s record a la the NFL scheduling formula, but the schedule makers’ job is hard enough as it is so we can live with whatever they come up with.
The playoffs would occur as normal, and MLS Cup would continue to be our chief showcase competition, with the winner being crowned champion of all Major League Soccer. They would earn a CCL berth along with the US Open Cup and Canadian Championship winners.
This would keep the current schedule that the league finds favorable, but structure it in a way that sufficiently addresses the Supporters’ Shield problem. In effect, no travel increases. It also creates a competition format that can stay in place as the league grows, providing a stable consistency in which MLS wouldn’t have to explain its changes each year. Each new expansion team would increase the League Phase by two games, decreasing the size of the Cup Phase, until eventually (in the distant future) both leagues would be large enough to fill up the entire schedule on their own, with East/West matchups limited to the playoffs and national cups. But that’s a long time off, and under this proposal fans could still see their club face each team from the other conference once even after the next few expansions, should MLS decide that that’s important.
It’s a compromise that I feel solves the most problems while creating the least new ones. Given Major League Soccer’s status as the most fan-friendly sports league in the world and their past history of listening to supporters, I wouldn’t put it past both them and the Independent Supporters Council to get together and get something like this done, or to at least formally consider it. I am just one supporter, after all, and these are just my opinions, but I believe in the vision of this league and I know we all want it to succeed on every level.