“When do the playoffs start?”
If you are fan of any of the major North American sports, it’s a question you’ll find yourself, or other fans around you, invariably asking during the course of the season. As exciting as the regular season can be for many, for the vast majority it’s viewed as the build-up to the real purpose that the league is played; the playoffs and eventual championship finale.
This emphasis on the playoffs isn’t unique to North America or somehow the antithesis of what soccer is around the world, but it certainly does stand apart in comparison to what most leagues in other countries prioritize domestically.
In the majority of leagues, topping the regular-season table carries much more significance. For some fans and media, the regular-season winner is a more worthy champion having survived a gruelling marathon to prove themselves an elite team over a longer period of time.
In MLS, much like other North American sports, the regular season is the aperitif that merely works to set the stage for the playoffs that determine the true league champion. This model has worked well in MLB, the NBA, NHL and NFL for decades and it’s for that reason that the MLS Cup playoffs naturally became the league’s final litmus test.
But is the current way the best way?
While the playoffs energize multiple fanbases across multiple cities, MLS and its teams play a long season from March until October. What about those 17 home games that each team has to sell and fans have to become engaged in? Is there a way to place greater emphasis on the regular season so that fans and teams are more invested in the week-to-week fixtures beyond their implication on a team’s playoff hopes?
Brian Straus of Sports Illustrated recently explored the issue in this excellent column. But while he touches on how the regular season could mean more, most of the suggestions are all still tied into playoff seedings. And guess what?
*whisper voice* Seedings don’t really matter!
Just get in and roll the dice - the better teams don’t always win and home-field advantage doesn’t mean as much as we’d like to think it does.
So is there a way to look at the season outside of the context of the playoffs?
Below are some changes MLS can make to truly turn the Supporters’ Shield into a trophy teams aspire to win and fans get excited for.
1. Hold the Supporters Shield winner in equal regard to the MLS Cup champion
Now - before you close your browser - hear me out. It’s not actually uncommon for soccer leagues to have two champions during the course of its season: Liga MX, for example, holds both the Apertura and the Clausura tournaments within its calendar year.
Each season it produces two champions of equal regard. In MLS, you could divide your season into a tale of two halves. From March to October is the ‘Race for the Supporters’ Shield’ and then, from October to December, you have the playoffs.
While the regular season is still used to seed the playoffs, the emphasis that each game matters in determining an overall champion is highlighted.
2. Make the Supporters Shield as valuable as an MLS Cup championship
Ah! The caveat. Holding the Shield in equal regard is fine and dandy, but fans and teams need to believe and know that it’s on equal footing.
Literally increase the value then.
Whatever the payout to teams and players is for the Cup, make winning the Shield as equally as lucrative. When players see the bonuses and start taking notice of the Shield, they’ll play harder each game. Coaches will coach harder each game. Fans will notice, and then fans will follow.
3. Emphasize the ‘Race for the Shield’
The biggest challenge is this: how do we get fans to care?
My belief is that fans will care about something if the teams care about it. Teams will care about something if the league cares about it.
Have the league and its media partners constantly highlight the Race. Give it a corporate sponsor. Discuss the remaining fixtures near the end of the season. Make it seem like a big deal.
Decades ago, in English football, the FA Cup was seen as a bigger draw than the European Cup. Fans didn’t obsess over Europe, but winning the domestic cup was the be all and end all. Once teams started turning their attention to Europe, the fans followed suit.
If teams care about the Shield, than fans will follow.
(OK… so how do we get teams caring about the Shield?)
4. Make winning the Shield worthwhile
In the Premier League, Arsenal vs Manchester United in February is as important as Tottenham vs Everton in November. One of the reasons for that is because managers and teams see each game, and each three points, of almost equal value.
How do you get MLS coaches to believe that and stop mailing in end-of-season losses with a playoff spot secure?
Dangle carrots in front of them.
The winner of the Shield gets:
i) an extra pick in the first round of the SuperDraft.
ii) 20% increase in targeted allocation money.
iii) one extra DP spot for two seasons following the Shield win.
The specifics of these matter less than the teams understanding that winning the Shield is more advantageous than simply getting home advantage in the playoffs.
5. Kick the season off with a trophy
Begin each year with a Community Shield-style event. The first Friday of the season should be one-game only: the winner of the MLS Cup vs the Supporters’ Shield winner.
The Community Shield shouldn’t matter. It’s one match between the Premier League winner and the FA Cup winner, which in the grand scheme of things means nothing. But the winner gets to go up the steps of Wembley and hold a trophy. No matter how jaded or pessimistic you are, it’s always cool to see your club hoist a trophy.
Call this kick-off the Commissioner’s Plate and have Don Garber present it to the winner with a little pomp and circumstance.
Individually, each of these changes doesn’t do much to move the needle on the regular season but collectively, they serve to emphasize the importance of winning the Supporters’ Shield. Both players and teams are incentivized and once they get behind the idea, the fans will follow.
Each game will matter a little more. As a fan, you’re not just looking at whether your team is in the top six in its conference; you may open up your sports app in mid-July and check scores elsewhere in the league. “I hope Chicago can beat Real Salt Lake tonight… Toronto FC will only be one point out of the Shield lead”. The entire profile of the league is raised. More fixtures matter - not just for your own teams, but around the league.
MLS is 20 years old now and while it does decent numbers in the playoffs, the regular-season attendance and TV numbers are still far away from being where the league and its clubs would like them.
In the middle of the season, when casual fans need a reason to come to the stadium, give them one. Highlight that every week matters in the big picture.
What does anyone have to lose?