MLS / MLS Rules / Season Review / Union

Rethinking MLS Cup

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Remember October 20th, 2019?

It was a rainy, cold Sunday in Philadelphia, warmed by hope of potential play-off victory. Specifically, the hope of the Union’s very first play-off victory in the club’s then 10-year history. The story is already Union Lore: a 4-3 comeback miracle, full to the brim with extra-time glory. (That game also ended with fans leaving the stadium doing the E-A-G-L-E-S chant ahead of their Sunday Night Football game with the Cowboys, which was its own brand of infuriating and worth a separate article someday).

Even more underlying than the hope of a first ever play-off victory was the hope of actually winning a trophy.  The Union were knocked out early in the 2019 U.S. Open Cup (1-2 AET @ DC United) and finished 18 points off the pace of Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC.  What that meant was the MLS Cup represented the team’s last opportunity for silverware.  Thus, the energy walking into Talen Energy Stadium that Sunday was palpable (as it was the following week at Yard’s Brewery ahead of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal match against Atlanta United FC)

Fast forward to roughly two weeks ago when the Union were set to square off with the New England Revolution in the quarterfinals of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Many fans turned on ESPN with a much more nonchalant attitude to the match’s outcome in comparison to 2019’s playoff run.  The obvious difference? This year, the Union entered the playoffs as 2020 Supporters Shield winners.  Success had already been achieved and this match was, in a way, unnecessary for Union fans and perhaps the squad as well.

The other quarterfinal (and play-in) matches were not unnecessary for every other team competing as they represented that same opportunity that Union fans felt last year; but this match was unnecessary for the Union.  They won, they celebrated, it was over.

The conclusion?

This tournament — the MLS Cup Playoffs — is silly.

More specifically, the timing of this tournament is silly.

The season or the tournament?

MLS Cup is a single-elimination, year-end tournament catered to American sports fans who cannot comprehend sports without playoffs.  It’s an American standard found in every sport on the continent and opens this welcome door to fans and teams: Once a team qualifies, it can push all of its chips into the playoff pot, regular season be darned.  But entering the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs as the fan of the Supporters’ Shield winners, Union fans were looking at the tournament through a new lens, one that completely undermined the success of a more difficult regular season achievement.

The team who finishes with the most points represents the team who sustained the highest level of play throughout the course of a full regular season; and that alone should determine who earns the title of “champion.” Instead, following the traditional American sports league model, MLS puts a single elimination knock-out tournament immediately after the conclusion of the regular season.  This send the following message: “Congrats to the Supporters’ Shield winner, but now let’s start the real show that everyone cares about more.”

This severely convolutes which competition is more important. The appeal of playoffs is obvious: they’re exciting, tense and often yield “great sporting moments.”  But they don’t reasonably determine the best team of the year.  Beyond that, given the timing of the tournament itself, the Supporters’ Shield victor is often quickly forgotten while the MLS Cup champion immediately becomes the focus.  Seattle and Columbus are set to meet this weekend in MLS Cup, and outside the Union supporters’ base there isn’t much talk of the Supporters’ Shield victors. Until Columbus won on Sunday, it was possible that a team the Union defeated four times and drew once in the regular season (New England Revolution) would have ended up in the cup final.

That is a dynamic that needs to be fixed.  How?

The league needs a big change

MLS has reached a point of stability where a change should legitimately be entertained and discussed.  Doing away with MLS Cup was never a viable option through the first 25 years of the league, as it had the difficult task of simply growing interest in soccer in America and anything to help that cause was on the table.  So adding the challenge of selling a playoff-less league to the marginally interested American soccer fan would have been daunting and counterproductive.  But MLS has done well to build a sturdy and reliable fan base, a lot of whom are familiar with to the international models of soccer leagues.

What does that mean? It means the playoffs can go.

With that said, there remains a major obstacle to overcome beyond the challenge of selling a playoff-less league in America: the unbalanced schedule.

Having the point’s leader be the crowning achievement in most soccer leagues outside of the United States makes sense because in nearly all of those leagues, each team plays exactly the same schedule: two games against each opponent, one home and one away.  That type of balance seems undoable for the foreseeable future given both the conference format and the large number of teams currently in the league (26). With four additional teams already slated to enter MLS in the coming years (Austin FC in 2021, Charlotte FC and Sacramento Republic FC in 2022 and St. Louis City FC in 2023) such a schedule is ever more far-fetched. (The EFL Championship does it with 24 teams and that grind is often described as one of the most difficult in professional soccer; and that’s even with a much smaller geographical area to cover for away matches).

Far-fetched? Yes. Impossible? No.

One option: stick with two conferences, thirteen teams in each one, and the traditional home and away format of the regular season only playing against your own conference, for a total of 24 games for each squad. A shorter regular season eliminates the “Seattle plan,” wherein teams can basically lay dormant and struggle for months, put together a string of results, and then immediately be back in the playoff picture. In this sense, MLS Cup is a sort of bailout for mediocre teams to help inject some meaning into their otherwise lackluster campaigns.

By staying separate, each conference would have its own version of a supporters’ shield.  Many long-time MLS stakeholder appreciate the current Supporters’ Shield and its history, but using it in this manner would make it more viable as an achievement and eliminate the arguments against its validity.

For those who still need a knock-out competition, the format could involve merging MLS Cup and the MLS Is Back tournaments and including all MLS teams from both conferences.  The tournament could run simultaneously to the regular season in the same way most European clubs play several simultaneous competitions every year with an all-league round-robin group stage followed by a knock-out stage; a unified MLS with “interleague” crossover matches unique to this competition.

The current format convolutes whether Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup is more important. They both are. The problem is Americans are trained to value the tournament at the end of the season as the most important trophy to win.  Anything that comes before is “lesser.”

One of the worst reasons a person can give when asked why something is done a certain way is “because that’s how it’s always been done.”  MLS Cup Playoffs represent that type of thinking.

It’s time for MLS to start thinking progressively.


  1. Jesus. Just accept that the 2020 Shield* will always have an asterick. The Union didn’t win shit.

    Just a week before, they planned to cancel the awarding of the Supporter’s Shield; because it’s meaningless in 2020.

    The Union didn’t win shit. Then, they lost to the Revution. Period.

    Well, “they already won. That’s why they lost.” Fucking idiotic.

    Then complain about the play-offs cuz “everybody else does it different.”

    Just accept the mediocrity of your team, and the idiocy of emotionally attaching yourself to a fucking game that other people are playing; then you’ll be fine.


    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Lovely to have you here. Please, share more of your reasoned opinions.

    • Richard Saunders says:

      Judibs is valuing a cup tournament that historically has allowed 2/3 of the league into it (so everyone), one that any team can win with just a handful of wins, over a trophy awarded for the most successful season where a team defeated more teams then anyone else.

      Dont be like Judibs. They lack basic common sense and logic.

  2. What is Champions league other than playoffs? Not in the same year, but it is still the better teams in a new subseason, with a one off game to win it all.

    A large number (majority?) of fans think the CL is more important than winning your league. The names and format are different but the overall “winning your league” vs “winning the playoff” mentality is the same.

  3. Moving MLS cup playoffs to single-elimination might have added excitement to the competition, but didn’t do much for its legitimacy as a way to pick “the best team in the league.”

    I’ve written this here before: I’m an advocate of getting rid of the Supporter’s Shield and using a traditional, balanced table system to crown two division champions with MLS Cup being a fun season-ending tournament, preferably with fewer teams (8 seeds max). If you still need to have inter-conference matches, I think those results should stay out of the conference tally and perhaps be added for consideration for the supporter’s shield.

    I think that gives you a best-of-both-worlds system with a traditional champion determined by sustained season success and then a playoff dash at the end because who doesn’t love a single-elimination tournament?

    • I’ve advocated the same. For anyone who is old enough (and I am unfortunately), you are describing the old MLB set up. I don’t watch baseball anymore, but there was time when the NL and AL were two completely separate entities and I think the game was better for it. This made 2 things huge sporting events on the calendar- the World Series and the All Star game. It was the only time those players played each other and the uniqueness of it made it special. The rest of the year was spent arguing that your league was so much better than the clowns in that other league- and who doesn’t love a pointless sports argument? The small number of playoff teams at that time also helped, because it was truly best vs best. At one time MLB had the undisputed best playoff format yearly.

      So I think it would be great but will never happen for at least 2 reasons. 1. MLS won’t go for popular teams and big name players never appearing in half the league markets. (so no separate leagues) 2. MLS wants every team to be fighting for playoff spots as long as possible. So even if you are in 11th place in October, one 2 game win streak can put you in the playoffs! (so no dramatic cuts to number of playoff teams). Don Garber wants MLS to be NFL II.

      • I agree with all of this. Though a counterpoint, I also think the size of the league will make them consider it if for no other reason than to truly balance schedules and results. Right now, with 14 teams in each conference, you’re looking at a 26-game schedule. That’s light compared to the typical (what is it, 34? 38?)

        You can add 8 or 12 games mixing it up or you use the lighter schedule to justify a larger and longer MLS cup tournament.

        But yeah, probably never going to happen.

    • The beef here, then, isn’t the structure of the season or the existence of the playoffs, but just the prominence and promoting that the league puts on the playoffs. The way you describe it, it’s basically the same thing but that the playoffs are “just fun” instead of a season-ending thing that is important.

      • Well, not entirely. You make a legit competition out of the conference season. They “crowned” Columbus the Eastern Conference champs. They’re not. Should be the Union. Should have been Sporting KC in the west (using PPG as the tie breaker). Those teams get silverware. MLS Cup becomes the Carabao Cup or maybe something a little more important than that.

  4. Section 114 (Former) says:

    Or, maybe something in between. Consider at 34 game schedule balanced by conference (2*intra + 1*interconference). And then a single game MLS Cup between the two conference winners. On a Wednesday night to avoid conflicts.
    The Supporters Shield Would matter. As would the other conference trophy (the Wondolowski Wah-Wah? The Garber Grift? The Canada Cup? It needs a good but silly name).
    And the MLS Cup would matter too.
    And then put the Final 8 of the US Open Cup in November someplace warm, like Orlando. End it on Thanksgiving Eve — when you’d have the major calendar to yourself. Then it would matter too.
    We end up with four trophies that all mean a lot. We get games that matter. And we get a playoff system for the US Open Cup that looks and feels like what US Sports Fans crave, all between the end of the World Series and before the NFL Playoffs and major bowl games.

  5. Jeremy Lane says:

    I’m not a pro/rep booster, but one of the arguments for it has relevance here: without the threat of relegation, there isn’t much to keep mediocre teams invested and fighting. One of the joys of MLS is that it keeps even bad teams in with a shout of the postseason. I don’t disagree that the Supporters Shield is more difficult achievement, but I don’t think getting rid of the playoffs is the way to make that clear. There are also ways the playoffs could be modified to make it less affected by randomness. The NBA playoffs, for instance, while still managing upsets, almost always crowns the best team, because it’s best of seven. That’s not reasonable for soccer, but going back to more home-and-home in the early rounds would help.

  6. One major difference between MLS and the other major American sports is that the others are all either the clear best league in the world for their sport (NHL, NBA, NFL) or at least arguably the best (I don’t know where MLB ranks compared with baseball in the far east). MLS is clearly NOT the best soccer league in the world and therefore should not feel the need to conform to the way other sports do things.
    Plus, even in other sports, the postseason is often not the best representation of the best team, especially in baseball where teams need 5 players in the most important position (starting pitcher) in the regular season but only 2 in the postseason.
    Maybe what MLS should do is grow to 36 teams, split into two 18 team conferences that are completely independent (east/west to cut down on travel) and award the major trophies to the conference winners. If they want let the two conference winners play a best of 3 series at the end of the season but make sure that is not the BIG trophy.

  7. All these people acting like you don’t get prize money for the Supporter’s Shield, or a CCL berth, or a trophy.
    If you are devaluing the Supporter’s Shield, that’s on you. The hard benefits are nearly identical to winning MLS Cup.
    There is no reason to get rid of MLS Cup. Not everything needs to be euro-nized {especially important during this ‘FC’ outbreak that we are all currently living through}.

  8. The league does needs a big change! Can’t wait to read more from you!

  9. This…was thought out like a fan of the team that won the Shield this year. If you get rid of playoffs, MLS becomes nearly every other league in the world – about 3 teams can win it going into the season. Boring. Not to mention that investors aren’t going to keep throwing money at teams that need to either finish top of the league or be damned. The idea of MLS is that it’s worth investing in mid-level growth because even you can topple a giant and win. And you need to watch the whole season (TV revenue) to find out who wins. Most leagues are over within weeks in other countries.

  10. This is a hell of a strange year to choose to defend the Supporters Shield, given that teams by and large only played a handful of other teams within their own region. For this year you’d have to have probably four or more separate Supporters Shields to really have them reflect the achievement accurately — and in doing so you’d dilute the value of the Shield anyway.

    But even in a normal year, having two Shields would only present the same old problem, you’d just have people bickering about which Shield is the “better” Shield.

    People like to compare to EPL. Last year the EPL champions lost only 3 games and had a 27 game unbeaten streak. It is so unreasonable that that same team wouldn’t be able to have a streak that long in a four-match series (qf, sf, cf, cup) at the end of the year? MC ended the season with a 5-match winning streak. MU ended the season with a 17-match unbeaten streak. In all, 3 of the top 6 teams ended the season with an unbeaten ending form.

    So no, I seriously doubt you would see a significant difference. And to paraphrase someone I really don’t like, if we didn’t have the playoffs, teams wouldn’t play towards the playoffs but they’d play towards the shield instead.

    Of course, EPL also has the FA Cup, which is a knockout bracket tournament which likewise has had “giant killer” results where “worse” teams beat “better” teams, and I’m not aware of people arguing the FA Cup is athletically meaningless because of it; historically, quite the opposite — teams saw winning the FA cup — again, a knockout bracketed tournament, just like the MLS Playoffs — as a pinnacle of national football achievement.

    • Another point about the EPL style league: you could say Liverpool’s non-perfect ending form means they would be unfairly screwed in a playoff tournament. But Liverpool was so far ahead on the points table that by the last few weeks, it’s arguable they took their foot of the gas a bit, because there was much less urgency having basically clinched the league. If they were playing a tournament, that might not happen. They certainly weren’t playing the strongest teams in those last six weeks either.

      And incidentally, that kind of really sucks for every other team in the league, too, because after that top-of-the-table team clinches, you’re no longer vying for league win (though you are vying potentially for other things like UEFA comps). In contrast, in MLS the majority of teams are still jockeying for a playoff spot those last few weeks.

  11. Haha written by a fan of a team that can’t. They Got to the final of the US cup , a one and done tournament and lost at home I believe to who the Sounders. The Shield this year is as meaningless as a Trump election lawsuit ! No one played the same schedule, or even the same amount of matches!
    You are literally arguing that the open cup , the covid cup and the MLS Cup mean nothing because Philly choked to an average NE club.
    Pathetic and tiresome!

  12. Adam Carpenter says:

    “The Seattle Plan”…..?

    Www4 Cup appearances in last 5 years with two of those being wins WITH the word Dynasty being thrown around by mls analysts.

    2014 supporters shield winners ourselves
    4 open cups
    4x West conference champs…
    Playoffs last 12 years
    Finished 2nd last 3 years straight.

    We win a lot, and all year…..If our name is going to be in your mouth it should have some respect behind it…….

  13. SeattleSounder says:

    Sounders fan here, so forgive me in advance.

    Part of the reason we often struggle mid-season is because our best players get called away for international duty. In this league, the DPs can make all the difference. This may be true for all teams, but some are impacted by it more than others–specifically depends on the players being called.

    Overall though, I agree with the sentiment. I believe the solution is, as you say, to regionalize the divisions and have them play a balance schedule within. Whether that’s two divisions today, or four divisions in the future, with the addition of a few more teams into the MLS.

    I would then have the top teams from each division compete in a domestic ‘Champions League.’

    To me it makes sense to increase the value and meaning of finishing ‘top of the table,’ but Cup tournaments are also part of football culture. I think this solution would allow for both.

    Lastly, I think regionalizing the league would build greater local rivalries. I do think that there is something special when Seattle plays Portland (or Vancouver) for example, that we don’t necessarily see elsewhere in the league. I could be wrong.

    • All you’re doing here is just giving the MLS playoffs a different name of “Champions League.”

      If you had that domestic “champions league,” wouldn’t that champions league overshadow the division lead titles — ending up in the exact same “problem” that OP laments?

      • SeattleSounder says:

        Think of it more like the western half of this country is England, and the eastern half is Germany. Both ‘countries’ have a schedule of parity and a meaningful domestic trophy for winning the league, and the top teams qualify for the Champions League. The problem today is that the league doesn’t make the prize for winning the league meaningful, and that’s in part because there isn’t parity in the schedule. If they can’t find parity across the country, split the country. I think it’s also a license to add teams.

        Now fast forward 5 or 10 years, double the number of teams in the league, and split the US into four divisions.

        If we got to a point where there were 12, 15, 20 teams in each division, and they all played home and away within their division, winning the division is worth a meaningful trophy, and then put the top 2, 3, 4 teams into a ‘Champions League.’ I think that’s a bit different from the current MLS Cup format.

      • SeattleSounder says:

        I had typed a reply which seemingly vanished, so hopefully I don’t double up on this comment…

        To answer your question, no. I am saying the league should expand, split into divisions that play a schedule of parity, and make ‘winning the division’ a worthy trophy.

        Today, there isn’t parity in the schedule, and the league (and many fans) treats the Supporters Shield like a second rate award.

        I could see east and west grow to 15 teams each, play within the division home and away, and give the winner of each division a proper piece of hardware. The parity argument is gone.

        Then have the top 4 teams from each division play a Champions League. That’s totally different from today’s MLS Cup.

        All of the above, then over the next few years, grow the league to, say, 48 or 52 teams, and split the country into 4 divisions (and so on).

        Just because it’s all one country makes no difference. There are teams in Germany and Italy that are closer to each other in proximity than Seattle and Philidelphia…

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