From our latest issue, Marco D’Onofrio looks back at the good, bad, and ugly of the past few months.

The Good

While many European football traditionalists are quick to criticize the MLS’ playoff format, it has certainly provided some of the most entertaining games the league has ever seen. They also remain as unpredictable as ever, ensuring interest in the league until the very last game – the MLS Cup final.

With the league opting to go with a knockout format for the duration of the entire playoffs last season, we’ve already seen wild finishes that nobody could have seen coming. In 2020, the top two teams during the entire regular season were knocked out in the opening round. Last year’s finalists Toronto FC were eliminated by expansion side Nashville SC, who were playing just their second ever postseason match. The Reds had participated in three of the last four MLS Cups coming into the campaign and most expected they’d get there again, especially after an impressive regular season. But it wasn’t meant to be.

The Western Conference final showed just why the new playoff format is so great, with Minnesota United playing in the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history against a Seattle side that had been to the MLS Cup final in three of the past four years. With a 2-0 lead and just 23 minutes to play, Minnesota looked set to do the impossible when three goals from the Sounders within 17 minutes crushed their dream. It was drama that could never have been scripted.

“As a soccer fan, when I look back on this in 10 years – I mean, that was an unbelievable performance. I don’t know how we did it. I’m just telling you, I don’t know how we did it,” said Sounders’ head coach Brian Schmetzer following the game.

While many believe teams should be rewarded more for their success during the regular season, the current playoff structure keeps fans invested in the product until the very end. Unlike many top European leagues where the winner is known for weeks or even months prior to the conclusion, MLS sides are always forced to strive for more competing until December.

The Bad

While the MLS playoff format has provided for exciting matches on the pitch in which all fans can enjoy, actually finding the game you want to watch can often be confusing and tedious. Unlike the UEFA Champions League where games are set at certain times and days every match day, the MLS playoffs ran on various nights of the week or on weekends making it difficult for neutrals to know when games are being played. 

For die-hard fans, scheduling is never an issue with most supporters planning their entire lives around their favourite teams – especially come playoff time. But in the North American sporting landscape with the league competing against various other professional sports for eyeballs, MLS needs to make it as easy for viewers to find their product on television as possible. The wild Western Conference final between Seattle and Minnesota didn’t kick off until nearly 10 pm ET on a Monday evening, meaning more than half of the continent wouldn’t be tuning in solely based on the timing of the match.

It was also competing against the juggernaut that is the National Football League’s Monday Night Football with the Buffalo Bills taking on the San Francisco 49ers.

With international breaks and the cold weather, trying to create a cohesive and fair schedule for the postseason can be exhausting but certainly MLS could have done a better job than we saw during the playoffs in 2020. While MLS Cup being played on a Saturday evening at 8 pm ET is fantastic, the league needs to do a better job in generating buzz around their own games.

The Ugly

The Supporters’ Shield was not officially killed, but it may as well have been following the way it had been treated at the end of the 2020 regular season.

On October 17, the Supporters’ Shield Foundation – the organization responsible for presenting the Shield – announced that they had decided not to award the Supporters’ Shield this season, saying that ‘the current climate goes against the spirit of the Shield.’ The announcement had come with teams having just five games left to play in the regular season.

The decision did not sit well with the players nor the fans. “My players are p****d,” former Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney told TSN when the decision was announced. TFC were sitting atop of the standings and had been fighting to win the Shield for just the second time in franchise history. “It’s a disgraceful decision that delegitimizes the whole idea of the Shield in our opinion. Those who made the decision are like kids in a park who take their ball away when the game isn’t going their way.”

It was hard to disagree with Vanney when the decision came so late in the season. The negative backlash quickly had the Supporters’ Shield Foundation reversing the controversial decision less than a week later. “You asked to be heard. In the end it was your input and votes that showed us this is the right choice,” the foundation said in a statement on October 23.

While ultimately the decision to award the Supporters’ Shield was the right one, the confusion and chaos caused by the foundation was detrimental to the prestige of the Shield. The foundation could not get out of their own way and hurt the legitimacy of their own prize. Teams who have been working hard all season to earn a trophy should not have the opportunity snatched away from them at the finish line.  

In the end, the Philadelphia Union claimed the Supporters’ Shield and lifted the first trophy in franchise’s history. It would have been a shame had they not been recognized for their stellar play throughout the regular season. The moment truly was a special one for the Union and their fans, which is what the Shield was created for in the first place.

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