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The remarkable parody of Major League Soccer

by Joshua Doering

In the past 10 years, there have been 16 different champions in Europe’s top five leagues, an average of 3.2 per league. Take out Leicester City’s improbable title and the first two seasons in Ligue 1 before Paris Saint-Germain completed their rise to power and the number is down to 13. 

The lack of parody isn’t surprising when regular season performance determines the champion. Logic says it is harder to overcome a talent gap over 30+ games than in a seven-game series or in a single-elimination format. The teams with the financial resources to buy the best players are winning regularly. 

Except in Major League Soccer. 

Logic would also suggest the unpredictable nature of the playoffs and knockout tournaments would lead to a wider variety of winners while the Supporters’ Shield — awarded to the regular season champion — would follow the same trend as the leagues in Europe. Wrong. 

Since 2011, six teams have lifted MLS Cup. Just 10 have reached the final. Seven teams have won either the U.S. Open Cup or this season’s replacement, the MLS is Back tournament.

Eight teams have claimed the Supporters’ Shield in the last 10 seasons. The New York Red Bulls are the only team to win it more than once. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders have captured multiple MLS Cups in that time span. Sporting Kansas City have four trophies, none of which are Supporters’ Shields. The Portland Timbers won an MLS Cup and MLS is Back but have never been the league’s best team during the regular season. 

Supporters’ Shield Winner MLS Cup Winner MLS Cup Runner-up U.S. Open Cup/MLS is Back Winner U.S. Open Cup/MLS is Back Runner-up
2011 Los Angeles Galaxy Los Angeles Galaxy Houston Dynamo Seattle Sounders Chicago Fire
2012 San Jose Earthquakes Los Angeles Galaxy Houston Dynamo Sporting Kansas City Seattle Sounders
2013 New York Red Bulls Sporting Kansas City Real Salt Lake D.C. United Real Salt Lake
2014 Seattle Sounders Los Angeles Galaxy New England Revolution Seattle Sounders Philadelphia Union
2015 New York Red Bulls Portland Timbers Columbus Crew Sporting Kansas City Philadelphia Union
2016 FC Dallas Seattle Sounders Toronto FC FC Dallas New England Revolution
2017 Toronto FC Toronto FC Seattle Sounders Sporting Kansas City New York Red Bulls
2018 New York Red Bulls Atlanta United Portland Timbers Houston Dynamo Philadelphia Union
2019 LAFC Seattle Sounders Toronto FC Atlanta United Minnesota United
2020 Philadelphia Union Portland Timbers Orlando City

As more and more money is poured into MLS, the “rich” teams with the ability to attract high-profile stars are still having more success in the playoffs than the regular season. There is no obvious formula that leads to winning the Supporters’ Shield. 

The Galaxy did it in 2011 with David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, three of the biggest stars in MLS. San Jose’s 2012 team was led by league MVP Chris Wondolowski (27 goals, 7 assists) and Alan Gordon (13 goals, 7 assists), both of whom entered the league without any fanfare through the college system. 

The Red Bulls got their three Supporters’ Shields on the strength of their well-defined organizational philosophy and the ability to effectively transition from an aging legend like Thierry Henry to a journeyman from the lower leagues of England like Bradley Wright-Phillips. 

The 2014 Sounders were headlined by the attacking duo of Obafemi Martins (17 goals, 13 assists) and Clint Dempsey (15 goals, 10 assists). FC Dallas led MLS in wins with 17 but only had the league’s fourth-best goal differential at +10 in 2016. 

Toronto stockpiled talent in the form of Italian international Sebastian Giovinco and U.S. national team stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore for their 2017 triumph. LAFC did something similar last season, rewriting the record books behind Carlos Vela’s 34 goals. 

The Philadelphia Union found yet another path to the Supporters’ Shield in 2020 with 83 appearances, 56 starts and 5,130 minutes from graduates of their academy in the 23-game season and another 53 appearances, 46 starts and 4,141 minutes from draft picks. 

Their coach, Jim Curtin, actually made a point of stating his group of players was talented after a win earlier this season. That really happened. 

Philadelphia’s players let the results do the talking for them, demonstrating once again just how many ways there are to build the premier team in MLS. It is only fitting that a league known for its quirks and randomness defies all rationale when it comes to crowning champions. 

Every team without the deep pockets of an L.A. Galaxy or Atlanta United should look at what the Union just did and wonder why they can’t be next. They don’t need a Beckham, Giovinco or Vela to compete with the top teams in the league. They don’t need to churn out talent from their academy like the Union did either. 

The numbers say the Supporters’ Shield is more attainable than MLS Cup and quite frankly, it’s the far more impressive accomplishment. It is this country’s obsession with the drama of playoffs that makes MLS Cup the more sought-after trophy. 

Nobody would ever say Aston Villa have a better chance of winning the Premier League than the FA Cup or suggest Celta Vigo are more likely to outperform Barcelona in La Liga than in the Copa del Rey. 

Yet here is MLS with more parody among its regular season winners than its tournament champions. Any team with the goal of reaching the playoffs and giving themselves a chance to pull off a couple of upsets to make a run at MLS Cup is thinking too small. 

A clear identity and a handful of intelligent signings that fit a club’s vision result in hosting playoff games, not just playing in them. Philadelphia, Columbus, Orlando, Kansas City and Minnesota will all play at least one game at home in this year’s playoffs. Big spenders LAFC, Atlanta United and L.A. Galaxy won’t. 

When everything breaks right, those signings and vision lead to more than a home playoff game or two. Any owner who is unwilling to spend that little bit extra to give their team a realistic chance is throwing away a legitimate opportunity. This is not some pipe dream. It is the beautiful, confounding, captivating world of MLS. 

Photo by Eric.Jason.Cross / Wikimedia Commons

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