Let's face it, as a soccer league we are still painfully American. Not to say that's a bad thing though. As somebody who was raised with American sports, I can definitely see the appeal in the play-off system. To be perfectly honest, it's fun and it extends the season (post-season) a bit more so that the off-season isn't so terrible. That said, as we mature as a league and acquire more foreign coaches to lead our teams, is the Supporter's Shield supplanting MLS Cup as the perceived league winner?
Here's what the New York Red Bulls' head coach Hans Backe had to say about the upcoming season in an interview with the New York Post:
"I'm not sure I care about the MLS Cup, (but) we need to be No. 1 after 34 games; then you’ve proved you’re the best team in the U.S. Then of course you can see with a Cup what you can do. But that, for me, is more like a mini-tournament for five games. Being No. 1 after 34, that's the target for me and the team.’’
Bold words from the coach of one of MLS's most important clubs.
Personally, I can totally relate to how he feels. Yes, the play-offs are fun and I'm absolutely not saying we should ditch it altogether. However, doesn't it also makes more sense that the league winner (the club with the most points at the end of the season) should be treated as the real league champion? So, for 2010, the honor would fall to the Los Angeles Galaxy, not the Colorado Rapids as LA had the most points. In fact, Colorado had almost 15 points fewer than LA heading into the play-offs and yet they are regarded as the best team in the league due to their winning of a play-off tournament series.
It's because of situations like this that allow me to suggest that the winner of the league acquires the MLS Cup and the winner of the play-offs acquire the Supporter's Shield because, well let's face it, if the coaches and teams begin vying for the league winning trophy anyways then the play-offs become more and more just for the fans, i.e. supporters of the game here in America.
Of course, the biggest draw back for the league in implementing this is that, once a league winner is crowned, interest in the play-offs could become significantly less. The reason for the play-offs, at least in terms of American sports, is that they're huge money generators. Television revenues, attendance, league-wide attention all skyrockets when the play-offs are occurring because of the drama involved: "such and such beat who?!"
Such a system also allows for true parity within a league, something we Americans are certainly fond of. Honestly, had the play-offs not existed last season, Colorado would have had no chance to win a trophy and LA was practically guaranteed winning the league seven games into the 2010 season (although there was some last minute drama heading into the play-offs).
Still, there are advantages to making the change as well, for the league. For one, everything becomes more predictable. The English Premiere League has a consistent "top four" teams: Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City (supplanting Tottenham Hotspur this year). Knowing ahead of time which teams are likeliest to win the most makes it far easier to market specific teams, coaches and players. it also makes marketing specific games far better. If the Supporter's Shield actually meant something, then maybe a game with the Los Angeles Galaxy vs. New York Red Bulls would actually be a meaningful game nationwide, thus drawing more people to watch the game and see how it impacts the league. As it stands, most people just tune in to casually see how the league's superstar DPs are playing.
Additionally, this system will also allow our dear ol' commissioner, Don Garber, to finally be able to tell the media and press that the Designated Player system works and is providing real results to teams that invest in said players. Today, no team with a DP has won MLS Cup.
There's no easy answer here for MLS. American sports fans will demand one thing, hardcore soccer fans will demand the other. There, unfortunately, won't be a perfect system that allows for both to be sought after, worth-while trophies. Still, with head coaches actively stating they care more for the Supporter's Shield than MLS Cup, and with the near-disaster that was MLS Cup 2010, perhaps it's time to think about making the switch.
Where do you stand? Keep it the same, or make the switch? Perhaps you have some other idea? Sound off below!