By Dario Camacho – MIAMI, FL (Apr 13, 2012) US Soccer Players — With all due respect to those fans wondering why they don't have a home date against the Galaxy, the biggest casualty with Major League Soccer's move to an unbalanced schedule is the importance of the Supporters' Shield. For those reared on European leagues, the Supporters' Shield is as close as MLS will get to crowning a true champion. With each team playing home and away last season, MLS followed that European model. This season, the Shield's value will likely depend on strength of Conference.
It's tough to decide who has the advantage. The West, where we expect to see the League's elite battle it out, or the East, where a very good team could take advantage in what was expected to be another mediocre year. Add in Montreal to the Eastern mix, and it becomes very difficult to really judge teams across conferences.
What that means for the Supporters' Shield is simple: can it be expected to crown the best regular season team in MLS? Though you could argue in the past that the best overall team might not have ended up with the Shield, they also weren't playing a dramatically different schedule than their cross-conference rivals. With the new schedule, have things really changed that much?
A Dominant Side
One of the jokes of last year was that MLS had already instituted relegation and just didn't bother to tell anybody. That lower division? The Eastern Conference. In 2011, the West had the three best records in the League, while the East could only look to Sporting KC for its lone team to reach 50+ points in the standings. That Sporting managed to go from worst to first over the course of the season with their home schedule only starting in Week 11 didn't speak well for the rest of the Conference. Nobody took advantage, with Sporting able to make up for a five-game losing streak.
This year, the predictions have everyone following the same argument, at least before the season started. The West is best, leading to the idea that whoever wins that Conference deserves the Shield. Being the dominant team in the weaker conference with an unbalanced schedule raises a significant question mark. Though no team determines its own schedule, playing weaker clubs calls into question what a club actually accomplishes. The points determine the Shield, but those points have their own intrinsic value when they're won against tough teams.
At some point all of these teams will face each other once. Yet MLS has moved closer to the traditional North American sports model. There's not a league among the major North American sports that doesn't have a weak division where the better teams are called into question based on strength of schedule. The playoffs are supposed to prove whether or not they're really any good. This season, MLS is setup the same way. If Western clubs win more cross-conference games, we have our proof.
There is also the argument for the team that dominates completely. That's the club that manages to make conference and strength of schedule irrelevant by turning into a clear winner. That means more than winning the Supporters' Shield by a handful of points. It means dominating, something Los Angeles seemed to be doing over stretches last season, only to end up winning the Shield by four points. A truly dominant club makes conference affiliation irrelevant. It also speaks against MLS's attempts at parity. We know what good really is because one team went out and showed it over the course of the regular season schedule. With that in mind, pick any schedule you want and that dominant team would still win. Balanced or unbalanced, the outcome would have been the same.
That's where Sporting Kansas City currently stands. The same team that turned around a losing streak to become the Eastern Conference champions last season now has a five-game winning streak and a date with the Western Conference leaders.
Pundits love a heavyweight champion. Fans do as well. That MLS makes it extremely difficult for such a club to emerge would only add to the sense of accomplishment.
Glitch In The System
As of now, the true value of the Shield is in limbo. An unbalanced schedule has consequences, and there's a competitive cost to trying to build up regional rivalries through extra games. In professional club soccer, teams prove their worth home and away. MLS could get fortunate and see a true champion emerge early. Maybe that team can avoid the draws that make title races appear closer than they should be. Perhaps we'll be spared the false enthusiasm of a final couple of weeks where mathematically anything could happen but normally won't.
The League deciding the conferences have to matter requires those conferences to be as close to equal as possible. Otherwise, it's that same old disparity problem. After all, we're not far removed from the East being the better conference. What's of concern with the unbalanced schedule is cheapening the value of winning the regular season. The Supporters' Shield should count in this League, and not just because it means a place in the CONCACAF Champions League.
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