MLS Supporters’ Shield Still Has Few Guarantees and Little Significance

In the 16 previous Major League Soccer seasons, nine different franchises have lifted the top prize in United States and Canadian soccer – the MLS Cup – following the league’s playoffs.

Since 1999, the league has given a secondary trophy out each year for the club that finishes with the best points total at the end of the regular season. The trophy was introduced to give the winner of the league’s grueling regular season more than just the top-seed in the playoffs. However, until 2006 the only true reward for a hard fought season was the actually trophy, rather than any reward in the league’s “second season.”

Since then the league has worked to give a few incentives to teams trying to accomplish more than just making the playoffs. In the past six years the Supporters’ Shield winner has also gained entrance into the CONCACAF Champions League group stage. However, many MLS clubs have been derided for their lack of interest in the competition, sans Real Salt Lake.

In 2011, MLS decided to do more for the Supporters’ Shield winner. Not only does the team make the Champions League, but there are some financial incentives for winning the trophy. The winner will also host the MLS Cup Final as long as they can navigate safe passage through the playoffs.

This year the San Jose Earthquakes clinched their second Supporters’ Shield in franchise history. Their previous came in 2005 when the league had only 12 teams and played 32 games – two less than this year.

The club’s 65 points currently ranks as the third highest in league history. San Jose still has one game to play, and if they overcome the Portland Timbers on October 27, the club will match the LA Galaxy’s league record of 68 points set in 1998.

Therein lies the problem San Jose now faces. In the 16 seasons of MLS, only six times has a Supporters Shield winner won the double. Of those six times, two teams have done it twice, DC United and LA Galaxy. On only one other occasion has the Supporters’ Shield winner even made it to the MLS Cup Final. The Chicago Fire did it in 2003, but lost to San Jose 4-2.

As many know, the MLS playoffs have rewarded teams in the best form at the tail end of regular season in two of the past three years. In 2009, Real Salt Lake clinched the eighth and final playoff spot on the last day of the regular season.

RSL’s good fortune led them past Supporters’ Shield winner Columbus, Chicago and LA Galaxy in the final. The club’s win was seen as a slight anomaly, but RSL’s performances since then have helped to disguise the team’s unlikely run through the playoffs.

The Colorado Rapids’ win in 2010 wasn’t given the same acceptance as RSL’s. Many consider the 2010 cup final to be one of the worst, if not the worst, in league history. There seventh place overall finish in MLS, 13 points behind Supporters’ Shield champions LA Galaxy, caused many to cry for a change in the MLS playoffs. Some even cried for a European model with an end to the playoff format.

But to keep interest in the league throughout the season MLS refused to drop the playoff system. This should be seen as a good move as soccer is the fourth or even fifth sport to many in Canada and the US. Without the playoff structure many fans (casual and hardcore) would give up on the league halfway through the season once their team is mathematically unable to win the league.

San Jose now enters the playoffs as the number one overall seed and will host the MLS Cup Final should they can get there. However, the Earthquakes may have to face last season’s MLS Cup winners, the LA Galaxy, in the Conference semi-final. The Galaxy will have to beat Vancouver Whitecaps first and either Seattle Sounders or RSL will await in the Western Conference Final.

So what has San Jose really won by finishing first overall in the MLS regular season? Not even the cup final at home is a guarantee. The club’s Buck Shaw Stadium is considered the worst in the league and only seats 10,500 – not a place the league wants their showpiece final. Meanwhile, the club’s options around the area have their own problems including artificial turf and scheduling conflicts.

With teams winning the double only 37.5% of the time, maybe the best thing in MLS is to just make the playoffs. But as the league continues to grow, now at 19 teams, the importance of winning the league will hopefully become even more important in future seasons.

Drew Farmer has a weekly column at Follow him on Twitter @calciofarmer.

18 thoughts on “MLS Supporters’ Shield Still Has Few Guarantees and Little Significance”

  1. They should not fear a final at Buckshaw, a small stadium full of passionate home fans makes for much better television than a nice big stadium half filled with neutrals. And the scarcity of tickets will encourage people to buy tickets and ticket packages earlier in future years. In a wierd way, the All-Star game becomes more important to the league because that is the event that you give tickets to sponsors- the weather is good, the stadium will be nice, the stars they have heard of will be there (these are people who don’t know who Wando is), and we will know where it is months in advance so flights can be booked.

    Oh, I agree with the post, long live the supporters shield! I just think the play-offs should move to one bracket to make things more fair and play-off pairings more interesting.

  2. If any league where going to do something stupid like only have a regular season, it should be MLS. 14 points seperating the top 9, with San Jose breaking the league record for points. SLC championship year, I believe without looking, was quite a bit closer, but…….

    Just kill the SS. It has never been fair, like when Columbus won in 2009, but Seattle played a harder schedule and finished very close.

    If San Jose gets lucky and makes it

    😉 but can’t host, it should be in Seattle. Close to SJ, best stadium in soccer and would have enourmous attendance.

    Make it happen, I want two great chances to attend, not just one.

    1. Sorry Charles, the final will be in San Jose at Buck Shaw, or at one of the other venues that can seat up to 50,000 people. You should come down here to watch San Jose win! 😉

  3. MLS needs to balance the schedule again because the SS is pointless without it. Also my money is on the team that played the fewest games to make the final and lift the trophy. Sounders are not going to win it because of deep runs in USOC, CCL, Summer Friendlies. Sorry Charles

  4. You dismiss the Supporters Shield because schedules are unequal, but not the play-offs. Play-off paths are unequal, especially in a two bracket system.

    1. Playoffs aren’t fair. There….a dismissal there too.

      The only arguement for the boring reg. season only route is fair. And the SS has almost never been fair and it won’t ever be so. Get rid of it, it just diminishes the MLS Cup champion.

      You trade fair for excitement when you go the playoff route.

      Epic games, big moments you will remember the rest of your life……..Like Kenny Hibbitt hitting the goal in OT to put the Sounders in the Soccer Bowl. 30 years ago, remember it like it was yesterday.

      1. I remember well the Rapids MLS cup win, but I don’t see how the SS diminishes anything. And, as Kevin said below, I think a team that wins all season in front of its loyal fans should be rewarded. San Jose may loose in the play-offs, but their excellent season should be acknowledged.

  5. I never understand those who want to kill the SS. It’s a major trophy and it matters! Do you want to devalue early- and mid-season games even more?

    The best record is important.

    1. At some point you need to decide, who won the championship. Not who won the championshipS.

      You get that, no ? I am a playoff guy. Big moments, big plays, heroes, exciting times.

      Those who are not, are boring dudes, who only care about fairness. 😉

      Having multiple championships, just takes away from which ever one you care about the most.

  6. I love the Playoffs!!! Yes when you think of classic moments that matter they happen in the playoffs my friend. An MLS CUP is the final goal!! Not who finish first on the league, there is more excitement when teams try to win the cup by going through the playoffs than just having a regular season! am sorry that is boring!. This is the time when the league gets exciting, to try to qualifying for a playoff spot, and just imagine how awesome it is to win the MLS cup in your own home stadium!! When that could happen to Seattle or Portland that will be something to remember!.

  7. i dont know why mls doesnt grow a brain like the rest of the world of even NASL and base their model on rewarding performance, not making sure fans are entertained. i dont think a mls cup has ever been won on consistent terms. i think the boneheads at mls should do what NASL is going to do next year, split the season then have both champions play a home-away series for the cup. it makes sense, rewards overall performance instead of just getting lucky (im looking at you RSL and Rapids) and keeps a playoff-esq feel. if sissy fans like charles get offended and stops watching cuz their team is mathematically out or its un american then good they can leave, it weeds out the weak casual fans from the hardcore fans, which is what we need.

    1. Alex calling me a casual fan.

      Now that is funny. See you at the playoffs this week Alex ? Hahahahaha.

      Did you renew your season tickets ?

      I have to stop I am killing myself….

    2. PS. Salt Lake won more games the year they won it than any other team.

      Did you watch all four games this weekend Alex ? No not talking EPL on Fox.

  8. So what you’re saying is that the shield isn’t as prestigious as the MLS Cup. And the CCL isn’t exactly something that gets the clubs blood pumping. Ok.

    But for the record, the reason colorados mls cup rubbed people (i.e. people like me) the wrong way wasn’t because they were a low seed, it was because they were gifted an easier route to the final due while 3 of the top 4 teams were on the same side of the bracket.

  9. I love all the comments guys. I have to say, I do like the playoffs, but I would like to see the top team rewarded with something more than a trophy no one (outside of the team’s supporters) recognizes. The casual fan (I think 90% of MLS fans are, obviously not you guys) doesn’t remember or care about anything except the playoffs and the MLS Cup. I believe the best overall points total should get more rewards. I’m in favor of the points winner getting a bye straight into the cup final. But that’s just me.

  10. I like the SS and MLS, reward the team with the best points and then earn your way to the MLS Cup if you are really good you win both of them, if you fail you still have SS and a trip to the champions league. I love the system, team alignment has to get better.

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