Winning Supporters’ Shield Means Nothing In MLS Playoffs

Only two clubs since 2002 have won the Shield, MLS Cup in same year
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, October 30, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

Once upon a time, when Major League Soccer was young, winning the Supporters’ Shield and winning the MLS Cup in the same season was a common occurrence.

Not anymore, and now the New York Red Bulls will try to offset recent MLS history.

It has been a very rough time for Shield winners in the playoffs over the past decade. As MLS has expanded, the road to the MLS Cup has gotten harder, and more often than not, Shield winners don’t even make the Cup final.

In fact, since 2003, only two teams have done the Supporters’ Shield/MLS Cup double. The Columbus Crew did the deed in 2008, and the Los Angeles Galaxy repeated the feat in 2011.

That’s a massive change from the early years of MLS. In the first seven seasons of the league (1996-2002), four clubs did the Shield/Cup double. DC United did it in 1997 and 1999, with Kansas City (2000) and Los Angeles (2002) following soon after. The three that didn’t win the Cup in that span, Tampa Bay (1996), LA Galaxy (1998) and Miami (2001), all lost in the MLS semis, so they didn’t even make the Cup final.

The first Shield winner to make the MLS Cup Final, but lose, was the Chicago Fire in 2003. They lost to San Jose, but kept on the habit of Supporters’ Shield winners being mainly successful in the playoffs. It seemed that winning the Shield was, more often than not, almost a guarantee of a good amount of playoff success.

But the Fire were the end of an era. Since Chicago’s final appearance, the only two Shield winners to even make the MLS Cup Final are the two who won the Cup, Columbus in 2008 and the Galaxy in 2011. As the league has expanded, Shield winners have found it extremely difficult to have success in the postseason.

Actually, more often than not, even winning a playoff round has become a rare occurrence for Shield winners. In the 12 years since the Galaxy won the Shield/Cup double, only six Shield winners have won a playoff round. Beyond the aforementioned runs by Chicago, Columbus and the Galaxy, only DC United (2006), Los Angeles (2010) and Seattle (2014) have survived the conference semis to play for a trip to the Final. Only the Sounders lost to the eventual Cup winner, losing to the Galaxy over two legs.

That means one may be wise to bet against the Red Bulls even making the MLS Cup Final. New York became a part of the Shield jinx in 2013, when they lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to Houston after Omar Cummings scored in extra time after the second leg at Red Bull Arena.  The Red Bulls led 2-0 in Houston and 1-0 at RBA before losing leads in both, and ending a season that saw the Supporters’ Shield be the first major trophy won by the MetroStars/Red Bulls club.

One reason why Shield winners may not be having playoff success may be the playoff format itself. The two-leg, aggregate goal format often favors the lower seeded team because they can get off to a solid start at home and then play not to lose (or not to lose by too much) on the second leg. The so-called “advantage” that a Shield winner has in having the second leg at home is in reality non-existent, and the addition of the away goals rule in 2014 has made the task of a higher-seeded team even tougher.

Some may point to the expanded playoffs as a reason, as well. But MLS has an 8-team playoff from 1996-2010, a 10-team playoff from 2011-14 and now a 12-team playoff, so that’s not a factor. The theory of momentum being for a team that just won a knockout stage match is also not a factor, as while the 2013 Red Bulls and 2014 Sounders had draws on the road, the 2011 Galaxy and 2012 Earthquakes both won the first leg against knockout round winners.

This also makes the chance of a Shield winner hosting the MLS Cup Final even more remote. Since MLS changed the playoff format to have the highest-remaining seed hosting the final, only the 2011 Galaxy has hosted the Cup final as the Shield winner and top seed.

Of course, MLS isn’t the only league having the best regular season record is completely separate from playoff success. For example, the National Hockey League has only had two teams win both the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record and the Stanley Cup in the same season since 2002 (Detroit in 2008 & Chicago in 2013). Meanwhile, the NBA has had just two champions since 2003 with the best regular season record (San Antonio in 2014 and Golden State in 2015). So it’s not just MLS where being the best in the regular season means next to nothing in the playoffs.

There are some who see the Supporters’ Shield winners as the true MLS champions, and at one time that argument could be made. But with expansion and an unbalanced, conference-focused schedule, winning the Shield is not that much different than winning the MLS Cup. With more expansion coming, scheduling will become even tougher, and the Shield winner is now as much about who did best in their conference as opposed to who is the best club in MLS. But winning the Shield is still a big deal, and go no farther than seeing the reactions of Red Bull fans in 2013 and this year, and Sounder supporters last year, to know how big it is.

What they also know is that winning the Supporters’ Shield means little in the playoffs, and that’s the history New York is up against.


Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.