Friday, 9 November 2012

The Throw-In: In the end, only one trophy really matters

SANTA CLARA, Calif. ­– In the immediate aftermath of the LA Galaxy’s scalp of the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday night, Bruce Arena had an odd moment, one of those temporary lapses where you started to think, “Dude, is Bruce OK?”
He complimented the Supporters’ Shield winners.
Not odd in and of itself. Arena never really got involved in the war of words as to San Jose’s physical style. And Bruce respects a winning team no matter how they get the job done. A winner’s a winner.
But when it comes to the Shield, Arena has been a critic of its value for some time. So it was a little unexpected to hear this shout-out for the Quakes:
“When you go through the entire season – even though I’m not a great believer in the way they have the Supporters’ Shield – they earned it,” he said after the 3-1 victory over the West’s No. 1 seed. “They’re champions of the league, and we’re still participating in another competition called the MLS Cup.”
Right there, Arena summed up the reality of Major League Soccer: The regular season and the playoffs are two very different animals.
Nowhere else in American sports will you find an award for the best regular-season record. Well, except the NHL, which hands out the Presidents’ Award. But there’s no bonus for that – if you don’t win the Stanley Cup, it hardly matters.
And that’s what the Earthquakes are feeling on Thursday morning, when they wake up with a horrible post-knockout hangover. That’s a feeling that has stung 11 Shield winners before them: morning sickness from failing to do the double.
There is, of course, a nice little carrot for the Quakes despite that failure, as Chris Wondolowski pointed out: “We’re playing CONCACAF Champions League next year,” he said. “That’s pretty cool, but right now, it means absolutely nothing.”
Sporting KC will tell you the exact same thing: Sure, that US Open Cup title is great, and so is the CCL berth that comes with it. But none of it measures up to the big prize that is MLS Cup.
That’s perhaps the way it should be. In our American sporting culture, it’s that trophy at the end of the road that means the most. We’re indoctrinated with the idea of playoffs, and our athletes are conditioned to expect to give it their all when the regular season is done, with the ultimate goal of winning a tournament.
But Arena hit it right on the head: It’s a tournament, just like the Open Cup. So, too, is the Supporters’ Shield, albeit more in the mold of the European balanced-schedule set-up.
But that doesn’t necessarily add up anymore either, does it? There is no balanced schedule to justify a single prize for the regular-season champion anymore. With the conference set-up emphasized now more than ever – and let’s be honest, those in-conference races were terrifically exciting this year – what exactly is the point of the Shield?
Maybe it truly is time to abandon the idea of the Shield. Or at least to switch it up entirely. By the time team No. 20 enters MLS, the idea of a balanced schedule will become even more laughable and the title of “regular-season champion” will ring more hollow than ever.
Tomorrow might be another story for the Earthquakes, especially when they start thinking about Champions League play next summer. But today, they’d give it all back to be able to win MLS Cup.
In the end, that’s the only trophy that matters.

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