Like many of my fellow Canadians, I grew up in a sporting culture dominated by hockey — specifically, the National Hockey League. Because of its dominance in the Canadian sports scene, we tend to filter how we see other sports through a hockey lens.
So, basketball isn’t tough enough because it’s filled with ticky-tack fouls; shouldn’t refs know to let that kind of stuff go, especially in big games? Why are baseball fights so comical — after all, they don’t actually fight. A Brit once told me that he had no idea that Canadians were the most bloodthirsty sports fans in the world till he came to this country and, well, watched sports in our midst. I don’t know if that’s true; it’s certainly not dangerous to go to a Canadian sporting event. But, are we more conditioned to want players to “get back in there” despite the broken bone? Are Canadians more likely to accept the referee who puts the whistle in his pocket when the championship is on the line?
But, maybe the most important “lesson” hockey teaches us is that a team is judged by how well it does in the playoffs, not how well it does in the regular season. Teams that often win a lot in the regular season after regular season but don’t replicate that, ahem, success in the playoffs are discarded from our consciousness. No one, absolutely no one, gives a hoot about who wins the Presidents’ Trophy as the top team in the regular season. Hockey teams refuse to even touch the trophies handed out to the Eastern and Western Conference champions, because it’s totally bad form to celebrate the smaller trophies when the Stanley Cup is out there waiting to be claimed.
While most of our hockey culture doesn’t translate well to other North American leagues, the playoffs-or-bust mentality of the NHL is a lesson that Major League Soccer fans need to learn.
Once again, we know that the winner of the Supporters’ Shield, which goes to the team with the best regular-season mark in MLS, will not hoist the big prize at the end of the season. The Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew will fight it out for MLS Cup this coming weekend. Neither finished at the top of their respective conferences.
MLS is a league that’s all about the playoffs; it’s a culture where the Supporters Shield winner has only won the big prize, the MLS Cup, twice since 2003. Playoffs see a complete reshuffling of the deck.
That’s because, in MLS, the regular season doesn’t do a lot to separate the teams. Take into consideration the league as a whole; no team had more than 18 wins out of 34 games played. Basically, winning half of your games is pretty good. Parity is a major part of MLS, and spending doesn’t really have any noticeable impact on shaking the mediocre from the mediocre.
Yes, there are Designated Players, stars who have come and gone with big reputations. Some have given the league big-time performances. But, to sign multiple DPs on a strict salary budget, a team has to make sacrifices. Toronto FC is the best example of this in 2015; Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco forced the team to make sacrifices when it came to depth. So, while you had Giovinco scoring or setting up goal after goal, you also had a back line that was one of the worst in the league.
Or, you can look at teams that go without a lot of big names, think of the Real Salt Lake team that went to the CONCACAF Champions League final in 2011, or FC Dallas of this season. They can pretty well match the big spenders because they had/have deeper rosters that weren’t hamstrung by multiple players on max cap hits.
In a nutshell, the truth of MLS is that, DPs or not, once the playoffs start, you basically have a lottery between 12 teams that aren’t separated by that much. The good: You get thrilling playoff series — such as the Eastern final between Columbus and the Red Bulls — which are decided by a goalpost. The bad: There is no tangible advantage for being a top seed — sure, that club gets to skip the first playoff round, but, over the conference semifinals and finals, all it gets to have in terms of rewards is the second of the two-legged affairs at home. When road goals are counted, that can be more of a disadvantage than an advantage.
The playoff games themselves have been compelling; but, for the soccer “purist” who loves league tables and thinks that being at the top of the standings is the best thing that can happen to a team, the North American sports culture goes in the other direction, To understand what makes a successful team in MLS, the first thing you need to do is divorce yourself from thinking that the Supporters’ Shield is important.
It’s not that hard. Repeat after me. The Supporters’ Shield DOES NOT MATTER. The Supporters’ Shield DOES NOT MATTER.
If MLS would want to make finishing at the top of the league matter, it would need to radically alter its playoff format. Maybe the No. 1 seeds would get to host both legs of their playoff series; maybe there would be a format where the No. 1 seed skips all the way to the Conference Final. But that isn’t the North American way of doing things. We know that the secret to North American supporting success is to a) just to get into the playoffs b) get hot c) have the kind of players on your roster who “elevate their games” when the occasions loom large.
Why? We know that from hockey. Remember that next year, when writers are yammering on about the Supporters’ Shield race or are trying to handicap the MLS Cup field — in July. They are wasting their time, and yours.
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