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The MLS Supporters’ Shield: a North American context

At best the Shield serves to bring in new fans who have previously wed themselves to leagues in Europe or elsewhere by smoothing the transition into North American sport.

For those not intimately familiar with the ins and outs of Major League Soccer, the Supporters’ Shield is an annual award given to the team that has achieved the most points via a system that sees three points for a win and a single point for a draw.

This award is rather uncommon in North American sport. None of the NFL, NBA nor MLB have its equivalent. The NHL does have the President’s Trophy which effectively serves the same purpose as the Supporters’ Shield but its allure is virtually nonexistent, the achievement hardly given a thought by teams heading into playoff hockey. In major North American sports, all that really matters is that championship.

Here lies the issue surrounding MLS’s regular season trophy; it is just that, a regular season trophy. It’s importance has been debated at length amongst MLS fans since 1999, when the trophy was first introduced for supporter groups to cherish over the next year.

The Supporters’ Shield stands in stark opposition to the commonly-held belief, “You can’t win anything in the regular season” prevalent amongst so many North American fans. But for the majority of the world’s domestic soccer leagues, you can only win something in the regular season. Playoffs instead are reserved for teams battling for promotion into a higher division (Discussion regarding the place of promotion and relegation in North America is best saved for another time). What is important is that MLS has always conformed to regular North American league standards, with a postseason which culminates in the MLS Cup final.

With North American supporter culture in really taking off over the past decade, it’s no surprise that MLS has amplified the importance of the Shield. In 2007, the Shield winner replaced the MLS Cup runner-up as the second American representative for the CONCACAF Champions’ League. The first representative is in fact not the MLS Cup winner but the U.S. Open Cup winner. (The Open Cup is a knockout competition spanning all three professional leagues, namely MLS, NASL and USL. Clubs from north of the border attempt to qualify for the CCL via their own Canadian Championship.)

Whether or not one is an advocate for the Supporters’ Shield, a single factor will likely ensure that the Shield will not displace the MLS Cup as champion decider: geographical logistics. Travel within MLS is already extensive (averaging over 1000 miles per away fixture) and players continuously bemoan lost time on the practice pitch.

In order to minimize travel time, MLS introduced an unbalanced schedule several years ago which has served to keep teams playing other teams within a closer geographical proximity, akin to Eastern and Western conference configurations in other leagues. This renders the table an inaccurate ranking tool, especially in times of imbalance between conferences as has been the case in recent memory with the West the much stronger of the two. This system currently offers Eastern Conference teams an unfair advantage of playing weaker teams consistently (see 2013 Red Bulls). The only way for the Shield victor to be considered a legitimate champion is to revert back to the balanced format that much smaller countries use. This hardly seems viable for a league spanning four time zones (Russian Premier League notwithstanding).

With no less than 12 of the league’s 20 teams reaching the playoffs this season, more than half of MLS will aspire to be crowned champions come late October. When opposing this number to the 2, maybe 3 teams competing for the Supporters’ Shield near season’s end, it’s difficult to argue that a playoff format doesn’t draw more excitement for more people. An extra 11 competitive fixtures doesn’t hurt either, whether you’re a soccer fan or an owner looking to make some extra cash.

At best the Shield serves to bring in new fans who have previously wed themselves to leagues in Europe or elsewhere by smoothing the transition into North American sport. The “football purist” may take exception to the Americanizing of the world’s sport but the reality is that there is no more suitable method of competition moving forward.

For those that may feel that MLS should not borrow from the rest of the world, however, consider that at the time that the idea of a Supporters’ Shield was being debated, breakaway shootouts were preferred over the single-point draw after the clock counted down to exactly 00:00. With this in mind, should MLS promote North American or international soccer ideals? A mixture of both is probably best.

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