Real Salt Lake face two huge matches this week, but which is more important?

It is an interesting question that plaques fans around Major League Soccer, and one that RSL fans are familiar with, “What matters most”?  Each year there are four trophies that MLS teams have a chance to compete for, the US Open Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup, and a select few teams compete for the CONCACAF Champions League trophy.  Which of these is the most important for teams and their fans?

I think that the Supporters’ Shield has lost a lot of the prestige it once held, now I know that some people will say that the new format of the season shouldn’t matter as MLS often played what was an unbalanced schedule in the past, and they are correct.  What those people miss is that in every season before 2012, every MLS team played every other MLS team at least twice a year, once at home and once away.  2012 marks the first time that the schedule failed to at least have that commonality to it, and while teams often would play more than those matches, they always at least played those.  So while the Supporters’ Shield holds a lower spot for many than it once did, it does still hold a couple of huge rewards for the team that wins it. First, the team with the best record can look forward to being the home team throughout the playoffs and that includes hosting MLS Cup if they make it that far.  Second, and maybe more importantly is a spot in the following years CONCACAF Champions League tournament.

Then there is the red headed step child of soccer in the US, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. I am not sure why this tournament has failed to take grip in the US, but I believe a part of the reason is that while soccer is very popular in the US, the lack of TV coverage both of MLS and the US Open Cup mean few people know the players or teams.  Of course some of the soccer purists I know will say that US Soccer’s constant changing of who can play in the tournament and how hosting rights are determined also hurt the legitimacy of the US Open Cup.  I am not sure if the US Open Cup will ever become as popular and important to fans and teams as it should be in the US, until there are core changes in the tournament, but while there is prize money at the end of the rainbow again the biggest prize is a coveted CCL spot.

So that leaves us with two trophies that I believe are the ones that hold the most importance to fans of MLS.  Every year MLS like all other major sports leagues in the US crown a champion via a post season tournament, so MLS Cup holds a high spot for the league and the teams.  But unlike any other sport in the US, soccer crowns a regional champions each year in the form of CONCACAF Champions League tournament.  Now there have been variations of this tournament over the years, it now has adopted a more standard format and since that no US team has won the tournament and only Real Salt Lake have even reached the finals of it.  So for me while lifting the MLS Cup can give you memories that will last a lifetime, to be the first US team to win the Champions League well, we simply don’t know what that would feel like yet.

Still MLS Cup offers it participants something that even winning the Champions League can’t, that is a spot in the next version of the CCL tournament.  Currently US Soccer (which controls which 4 US teams get into the Champions League), says that both the winner and loser of MLS Cup earn spots into the Champions League.  Putting a star over your crest is something that nobody can ever take away from a team, well unless you move your team to Houston and are forced to give up two stars to a new version of the team that moved.  Still to be the Champion of your league has an incredible amount of prestige that goes along with it, both for the team and their fans.

I think this year MLS has taken a step that makes MLS Cup even more important is that it isn’t going to be played in front of neutral fans as was so often the case in the past, this year it will be played at the home of the team playing with the best regular season record.  I think back to 2009 and can imagine how much fun it would have been to be playing that match at Rio Tinto Stadium or even the Home Depot Center, where every fan had a vested interest in the match.  We saw in 2010 what can happen when few fans travel and a host city is disinterested in the match.  From now on the energy of every MLS Cup should rival that of last year’s final played at the Home Depot Center, where for hours before to hours after the match there was a buzz of fan generated electricity around despite the bad weather, because their team was playing in the biggest match of the year.

For all the glory of MLS Cup there is the reality that being the best of 19 teams is impressive, but being the best of the best 24 professional teams around the region is even more impressive.  While adding another round (wildcard) and match to the Conference final might satisfy some, the reality is that it is a short run of 5-6 matches to win MLS Cup.  The Champions League starts out with group play, which requires at least 6 matches before the knockout round even begins.

While some MLS teams consider CCL a burden, with international travel, schedule congestion, and roster restrictions and field reserve laden teams and are simply content to participate, for Real Salt Lake, the tournament is a chance to establish their brand, beyond the limits of MLS. From the time the team qualified as a result of winning MLS Cup in 2009, they set their goal as high as you can, to win the Champions League.  Roster moves like bringing in Alvaro Saborio, keeping a majority of our 2009 team together despite the restrictions of the MLS salary cap, all were signs of how serious RSL takes Champions League play.

The results of the first run speak for themselves, while the LA Galaxy were eliminated before the group stage even began by the PR Islanders, RSL went on to become the first MLS team to win their group in the tournament and followed that up in the spring of 2011 by becoming the first and only MLS team to make it to the finals of the tournament.  A heartbreaking loss at Rio Tinto Stadium, saw Monterrey lift the trophy, but it was RSL that showed the rest of the league that Champions League success was possible.  The amount of support that RSL received from MLS, as well as the individual players and teams of the league during that run was impressive, it raised the bar of expectations.  Now we have seen MLS teams go to Mexico and pick up wins, we have seen other MLS teams win their groups, and hopefully next spring we will see an MLS team make it back to the CCL finals.

For me the answer to which trophy, which competition is the most important is easy, for the MLS teams that qualify for Champions League, being the best in the region is the bar that every team should be reaching for.  What do you think?

That’s How I See It



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