Tim Cahill, left, and the New York Red Bulls captured their first Supporters' Shield last season. (Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)
HARRISON, N.J. - The New York Red Bulls concluded the 2013 MLS regular season with the best record in the league and the club's first Supporters' Shield. In Europe, that accomplishment would have been good enough for a league title. In MLS, however, the honor plays second-fiddle to MLS Cup.
For players like New York Red Bulls midfielder Tim Cahill, who has played the majority of his career English clubs Millwall and Everton, the importance placed on postseason results by MLS remains a unique oddity of professional soccer in America.
"I've only known the Premier League. So I know that when Manchester United wins the Premier League, (they) didn't raffle it up and say you finished fifth, do you want to play in this round robin and then take our trophy?" Cahill said Monday at Red Bull Arena as part of the MLS media and marketing tour. "I feel like I've achieved massively over a season. Because that's how I get judged as a player. That's how you judge me. You don't judge me for the MLS Cup, over two playoff games."
Cahill said that while he is learning to appreciate MLS Cup and the league's structure, he still believes the Supporters' Shield is more representative of the strongest team in the league. The structure of MLS, he argued, creates the opportunity for teams to rest their players strategically throughout the season, sneak into the playoffs and win a few games to take the title.
Rather than rewarding the larger body of work, the MLS Cup ensures the title goes to the team playing the best for a few weeks at the end of the season, despite the league trying to tinker with the postseason format and provide incentives for those who excel in the regular season. It's a concept familiar to American sports fans, used to events like the NFL playoffs, March Madness and the Stanley Cup playoffs, competitions in which lower-seeded teams regularly prevail. The Supporters' Shield, on the other hand, represents a full season of excellent performance.
"We won this trophy for the fans over a season. That's what they paid for," Cahill said. "The MLS Cup is amazing and special, and if we were good enough we would have won it. We didn't win it, and the schedule and the way things worked out, we probably were our own worst enemy in those two games."
Cahill's Red Bulls finished the 2013 season with the best record in MLS, but not every team in the league plays the same schedule, as is custom in the English Premier League. Last year, New York lost to the Houston Dynamo -- a team that finished fourth in the Eastern Conference during the regular season -- in the two-leg conference semifinals.
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi, whose club won the 2013 title in a riveting PK shootout over Real Salt Lake, noted that finding the appropriate balance between the regular season and postseason was key to the club's overall success.
"That's been something that at Kansas City at least we put a big emphasis on, being the best team throughout the season," Zusi said. "The consistency throughout the season can give you the confidence to do well in the playoffs."
Sporting KC finished 2013 second place in the overall standings, only a point behind New York, before eventually capping a successful regular season with MLS Cup.
Maurice Edu, on loan with the Philadelphia Union for the 2014 season from Stoke City, unintentionally underscored Cahill's perspective on the MLS Cup.
"The initial target for us should be the playoffs. This league is funny in the sense that anyone can beat anyone on any given day. So I think we can aim for the playoffs," Edu said. "Then hopefully we can string together a good few games and who knows, come out champions."
That mentality is relatively unique to American professional sports leagues -- including MLS -- which place less emphasis on the overall grind of the regular season than their European counterparts. Even though Cahill said he values the MLS Cup and has his eye on it this year, he still feels the Supporters' Shield is the biggest accomplishment for an MLS club.
"I still feel in my mind we won the hardest thing to win, and that was the Supporters' Shield," he said. "This year is a massive target to try and potentially win an MLS Cup if we can."