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.