Sometimes I need to slap myself to believe that it is real, but Toronto FC has become one of the best franchises in Major League Soccer over the last two seasons.
I think as fans, we can get accustomed to the Reds being contenders, and at the very least, respectable year after year. It has been painful to witness at times, but it would seem that those gloomy days are long gone. There is a culture. There is a plan. And the results are the reward.
The first 4 matches to start the season have netted 6 points – an adequate haul, considering the difficulty of consistently obtaining away points in MLS, and the harsh weather conditions of the home opener. The Reds are undefeated and have 3 clean sheets – a perfect platform to springboard towards the Supporters Shield.
Say what? Excuse me, I didn’t hear you the first time. Could you repeat that?
The Supporters Shield.
This is not an outrageous goal. TFC were considered a favourite for the prize well into September of last season until a poor stretch of home results took them out of the mix. This is often forgotten as we look back on 2016 and the magical MLS Cup run that ended up just short. The Supporters Shield is a worthy prize, and most importantly, does not have to come at the expense of another target – The MLS Cup.
Obviously, the MLS Cup is the grand prize, and so it should be. The uniqueness of the North American professional sports landscape places the utmost significance on the playoffs. Nothing beats the tension and anxiety of knock out competition. The emotional release of winning a playoff series warrants its status. It is not quite the same as the long marathon of the regular season. One mistake could cost your team the opportunity to advance.
But soccer is different in regards to its regular season. It places more value in its purpose. There is recognition that goes with the achievement. Hockey, baseball, and basketball put zero merit into whoever finishes at the top before the playoffs commence. The standings are merely used for playoff seeding. This results in the luxury of drawing a weaker opponent, and the chance to host an extra home game in a 7 game series if necessary.
The rewards are greater in MLS. There is a first round playoff bye for starters. Beyond that is the right to host the second leg of home and away ties. Eventually, if you are one of the last 2 standing, you get the honour of hosting the MLS Cup. The benefits to winning the Supporters Shield are clear as day. If your team is healthy and in top form, playing at home could be the slightest measure to put you over the top. The only other sport with a comparable advantage would be the NFL, with its single game elimination format and heavy reliance on home field.
As we witnessed during last year’s MLS Cup, the smallest mistake, the thinnest of margins, or the unluckiest of events could tip the balance. TFC did everything right but it just wasn’t their day. I’m not saying that the Supporters Shield guarantees you anything. It doesn’t. Past MLS Cup champions have proven that point. But if the Shield is to be had, why not? So long as player health and fitness isn’t sacrificed. If you’re maintaining top form, why not give yourself any advantage possible, and let everything else play out?
The MLS Cup is too far down the road to be fixated on. Once September rolls around, then worry about being in playoff mode. Why stress about winning something that can’t be won in the first 34 matches of the season? The Supporters Shield should be the focus for the foreseeable future.
TFC has the talent and depth to do it. They also have the squad cohesion and familiarity to build upon the success of last season. It is a realistic goal that will contribute to the winning culture the club is trying to establish.
Besides, It would look mighty fine in that new trophy case don’t you think?
By William Jamieson