Soccer

MLS Cup Playoffs: How the topsy-turvy postseason has not rewarded regular season success

When the MLS Cup Playoffs began with Jakob Glesnes scoring the latest-ever goal in league playoff history, it was clear that this year’s road to the championship would be anything but normal. His dipping shot from outside the box in the 123rd minute began a run that now sees the Philadelphia Union preparing to take on NYCFC in the Eastern Conference finals. But that’s just an appetizer to this endless meal.

The madness continued as Minnesota United lost by allowing goals to the Portland Timbers on either side of halftime. But things took off in a penalty shootout victory by Real Salt Lake. Missing one of their best players (Albert Rusnak) due to COVID protocols, Real Salt Lake bunkered down, allowing 21 shots to the Seattle Sounders and not even attempting a shot of their own. Yes, you read that correctly, they didn’t attempt a single shot through over 120 minutes of soccer before winning a shootout 6-5 to go through to the next round.

Salt Lake followed that up by knocking off the third seed in the West, Sporting Kansas City, on a late goal from Bobby Wood to keep the playoff adrenaline pumping on the way to the Western Conference Finals. Their opponents, the Timbers, took down the top-seeded Colorado Rapids as well because what you do in the regular season means nothing in the playoff gauntlet.

No team knows that better than the New England Revolution as they were rewarded for winning Supporters Shield and breaking the MLS single-season points record with… a 23-day layoff before their first match facing NYCFC. For comparison the Rapids, in a similar boat, had an 18-day break between their matches. No team should have a break that long where they can lose rhythm by not playing matches as the rustiness showed.

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New England fell asleep defending on as NYCFC scored in the third minute and didn’t look like the team that set the points record until they were playing up a man after Valentine Castellanos’ red card in the 113th minute. These layoffs are part of the reason why the Supporters Shield curse exists. From 1996-2002, the Supporters’ Shield winner won MLS Cup four out of seven times. From 2003 to now, the shield winner has only won MLS Cup three times. 

Only one other time has the shield winner even made it to MLS Cup, and in that timespan they’ve usually been knocked out during the conference semifinals. Last year, the Philadelphia Union even lost to the Revolution in the first round after defeating them four times during a COVID-adjusted season. The imbalances help make for topsy-turvy playoff matches but don’t do enough to reward the teams that win their respective conferences.

But if the point is to make for a more entertaining playoff format, the league has delivered. Three matches have gone to penalty shootouts so far. Five have seen more than three goals scored combined by the teams taking part and only four matches have ended with one or more teams being shutout, and one of those was the epic shootout between Seattle and Salt Lake. So maybe the Supporters’ Shield is for the best team, but the MLS Cup is for the hottest team.


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