WILL THE SUPPORTERS SHIELD BATTLE MAKE REGULAR SEASON MATCHES MORE IMPORTANT?
Any fan of Major League Soccer is aware of the fact that regular season games count for little compared with a single-table league.
The two-conference system and the fact that half the teams in the league qualify for the post-season mean that a team with a losing record can qualify for the playoffs and even win MLS Cup.
Real Salt Lake is a very fresh example. Having had more losses than wins in 2009, RSL grabbed the final playoff position on the final day of the season, and managed to win MLS Cup. Clearly no fluke, as the New York Red Bulls proved to be, taking the same route in 2008, RSL beat the best team in the Western Conference to win the Cup, and the two best teams in the Eastern Conference to get there.
Oh and the first of those Eastern Conference teams was the Columbus Crew, who had the best regular season points total in ’09.
Regardless of whether deserved to be IN an MLS Cup final, RSL certainly deserved to win it, but this eventuality is a serious matter of concern for a large chunk of MLS fans, who would rather see a single table and do away with the playoff structure altogether.
MLS, to counter this objection, designed the MLS Supporters Shield to be given to the team with the best overall points total at the end of the regular season and sweetened the pot by providing a direct path to the CONCACAF Champions League group stages to the recipient.
The Supporters Shield itself is not a shield at all, but a trophy. A surprising as this may seem, it will not throw off MLS fans who are used to an MLS Cup that has never been a Cup. But hey the World Cup isn’t a cup either, so let’s move on.
The creation of the Supporters Shield has done little to stem the flow of criticism regarding a potential single table, but the award has insured that MLS’s most consistent teams are represented in the continental championship.
The Columbus Crew have won the award the last two seasons, and are in a heated battle to claim a third straight, in a season that looks as if it will provide the closest ever race to win the award. More than providing a close battle for the Shield, this season’s race has the ability to make regular season matches important on a level that the league, and its fans, has never seen.
There has never been such a close battle for the Shield, and that is saying something in a league driven by parity, so let’s set the table for the race to be this season’s top team.
The Los Angeles Galaxy’s early season run set them way ahead of the parity-pack that is the usual MLS modus operandi, but a dip in form of the last few months and consistent play from RSL, the Crew, New York Red Bulls and the currently red-hot FC Dallas have made the final weeks of the season, and the subsequent awarding of the 2010 Supporters Shield, a thrill ride.
With last weekends win on the road over DC United, Columbus are now tied for the MLS top spot with LA who could only manage a draw against a 10-man Fire team in Chicago.
Both teams now have 44 points with both teams having seven matches left to play. RSL has 43 points with the same number of matches left and FC Dallas is 4 points off the pace with a game in hand on all three. New York Red Bull, who trail Columbus by 7-points in the East with seven matches to play, are also still in the race for the Eastern Conference, Supporters Shield and an MLS Cup.
Let’s face facts, the stretch run is going to be fun if you are a neutral and nerve-racking if you are a fan of any of those sides, but more importantly, the final dash for the ’10 Shield is going to make some of the upcoming regular season matches mean a hell of a lot more than they ever had.
Take, as an example, the upcoming match between LA and Columbus at the Home Depot Center this Saturday, possibly the biggest regular season showdown of the season.
It is a battle between two teams that are in 1st place in their respective conferences but by a mere margin and points are at a premium. The two sides are tied with each other on points and games played and even have identical records at 13-5-5.
The Crew lost 2-0 to the Galaxy in Columbus way back in May, but have gone 4-1-1 in their last 6 matches, across three different competitions. And are 5-2-1 dating back to July in the league. The Black and Gold have a 7-point cushion between themselves and 2nd Place New York Red Bulls in the East but will have a CCL match on Wednesday against Joe Public factoring into their plans.
The Galaxy does not have two other competitions occupying their mentality, but they also have no room for error in a very crowded Western Conference. RSL and FCD are breathing down their neck and Bruce Arena’s men have only won once in their last six going 1-3-2. More alarmingly, the late equalizer against the 10-man Fire was their first goal in three matches.
Regardless of how you slice it, this is a regular season match that means something for both teams. Throw in the possible return of everyone’s favorite designated player, David Beckham, and the hype machine is about to get cranked up.
Distressingly, unless you live in either Columbus or Los Angeles, you better have MLS Direct Kick, cuz this one is not on ESPN2, TeleFutura or Fox Soccer Channel. Lord I wish there was a late season shuffle to get the Grade A matches on at Grade A channels, akin to the Premier League, Major League Baseball, or the National Football League, but I digress.
Coming up in the final stretch run of the MLS season are some tangy ties that will make the run-up to the playoffs almost interesting as the post season itself.
FC Dallas will visit both Rio Tinto and the HDC; two matches that could radically impact the race for the Supporters Shield, the Western Conference and overall playoff positioning. More intriguingly, both matches are the last two matches of the season for the Texas team. Again, neither of these key matches will be televised nationally.
The Crew, aside from the LA match this weekend, do not face any of the Shield contenders, but the Ohioans also have four more CCL matches and a US Open Cup final to play before the end of their season, occupying most of the Columbus mid-weeks from now through the playoffs. Though the Crew have just the lone match against LA in terms of fellow Supporters Shield contenders, they will have to face teams in heated battles for playoff spots. Seattle and San Jose at Crew Stadium and Chicago and Toronto on the road. In many ways these sides pose as more significant threat to the Crew’s chances of retaining the Shield for an unprecedented third straight year. None of these matches are on national TV.
Real Salt Lake also have four Champions League fixtures remaining before the end of the regular season, and also have to play playoff battler Seattle (at Qwest this Thursday Night, ESPN2) and Chicago (Sept. 18 at Rio Tinto, TeleFutura), but have matches against potential Shield opponents New York at Red Bull Arena (Oct 9) and at home against FC Dallas (Oct 16)
The Galaxy have 5 of their final 7 matches at home. In addition to hosting Columbus and Dallas in the Shield shakeup, they will also host New York. That match, a DP battle Royal, will, thankfully, be aired on ESPN2 on Friday September 24.
New York may be the team to play spoiler for almost every contender and playoff team. The Bulls, who lost to RSL in Utah at the weekend, will host the defending champs at RBA (Oct 9) as well as visit Dallas (Thursday Sept 16) and LA in that September 24 match at the HDC.
Will the Supporters Shield race make these matches more intriguing? Will the four contenders try to wrap up a place in next season Champions League before the playoffs even start or will they focus on just securing a playoff spot in hopes of positioning themselves for an MLS Cup run?
One thing is certain, and the Columbus Crew will attest to the fact, no one will want to be the team that wins the Shield but is bounced out of the playoffs in the first round by the 8th seed.