It’s a difficult concept, I know, but trophies don’t necessarily become more important merely because you want them to be. Perhaps they’re more important to you – your sweat and tears making victory that much sweeter – but one team’s desires rarely raise a competition’s profile.
Of course, when I say “you,” above, I’m talking about Seattle defender DeAndre Yedlin. And I’m talking about the Seattle Sounders, a team that secured its first Supporters’ Shield with a 2-0 victory on Saturday against the visiting LA Galaxy. All that “analysis” I offered 10 days ago? About LA having the key indicators on its side? Seattle debunked it all. Over the course of two games – a home-and-home that decided which team got home-field advantage throughout the playoffs – the Sounders took four points, scored the series’ final four goals, and made their case. Perhaps it wasn’t pretty, and maybe LA handcuffed itself in Saturday’s finale, but Seattle still got the best of its main competition. Shouldn’t the Sounders be considered favorites?
Even in that question is a premise: that there’s more to come. The Supporters’ Shield isn’t the final word. Like it or not (and I mostly don’t), the final month is still the most important one on the Major League Soccer calendar. It’s the one front offices build for. It’s the target players have in mind when they report for camps each winter. No, on a landscape that includes CONACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, as well as international soccer, it’s not the only goal, but given how things work around the league, MLS Cup is still the circuit’s pinnacle.
Yedlin disagreed. “I honestly think the Supporters’ Shield is more important than an MLS Cup championship,” he said after the match, something that would have been nice to discuss before Saturday’s outcome.
In fairness, Yedlin isn’t the type of guy to change his views because of one result. And, in fairness, he doubled down on his Twitter account, giving the classic and almost convincing rationale for favoring a 34-game sample over the 5-or-6-game one:
All of which feels like the same argument we’ve had since the inception of Major League Soccer, one that inevitably devolves into “why aren’t you doing things like the rest of the world?” It’s a fair question with a lot of good explanations and critiques, but implicit in that view is the reality: Major League Soccer is not like the rest of the world. Importing other league’s standards (and, in this case, logic) doesn’t carry the day. Yes, the quantity 34 is greater than 5 (or 6), but as evidenced in Bruce Arena’s decision to keep his best player (Robbie Keane) off CenturyLink’s turf, the regular season is not the league’s most important tournament. There’s no way Keane rests if that game decides the title.
That’s the key distinction. Saturday’s game won a title; not the title. Like the U.S. Open Cups that Seattle has hoarded over the years – important trophies, but not quite as important as the team or fanbase purport – the Supporters’ Shield is a huge honor, particularly for a team that almost parted ways with an iconic coach 10 months ago. In that time, Seattle has gone from deconstructing its uncertainties to snaring its first major honor.
It’s just not the major honor. It can’t be. When teams are holding out their best players from regular season games, willing to risk the Supporters’ Shield (last year’s Shield winners, New York, did the same in Seattle last year), you can’t point to the regular season as being “more important than an MLS Cup.”
And, of course, it’s completely unfair to imply everybody in Seattle feels this way. Though general manager/co-owner Adrian Hanauer, head coach Sigi Schmid, and the rest of the people who’ve made Seattle an MLS power might value a Supporters’ Shield more than most, that may have been because of the state of Seattle’s trophy cabinet. It may also have been about a sincere belief 34 should be considered more important than 6. Or 5.
But Hanauer and Schmid know: There’s a bigger prize on the MLS landscape.
“Our mantra for this season was that we were going to try and be greedy,” Schmid said, a view that’s spawned the Twitter hashtag #hellagreedy. “We have one more thing to be the ultimate greedy people.”
That doesn’t mean the Supporters’ Shield isn’t a “big deal,” as Clint Dempsey put it. It is, especially for a team that, 10 months ago, had reason to believe it was regressing – moving away from its bigger deals. Dempsey’s right: Seattle was the best team over the last eight months. The Shield proves it.
But does that make the Shield the league’s biggest deal? No. No matter how much DeAndre, Clint, or a slice of fans in and out of Seattle spin it, the Supporters’ Shield won’t be the biggest deal until 19 (err, 18; or, 20) teams agree that it is; until they agree that the eight-month prize is worth risking it all.
It wasn’t last year, when we knew New York wasn’t the league’s best team, and it’s not this year, when Seattle very well might be. Until the league as a collective decides the Supporters’ Shield is the ultimate goal, it’s just not.