Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 1:34 PM
For the first time since June 22, Real Salt Lake no long occupies the pole position in the race for the Supporter’s Shield.
Instead, with its 2-0 result in front of a packed house at CenturyLink Field last Friday, Seattle has become the new front runner for that honor as the final weeks of the Major League Soccer season approach.
For the Claret-and-Cobalt, it’s certainly not the end of the world.
In fact, it may turn out to be something positive.
In the last 10 years, the Supporter’s Shield winner has only won the MLS Cup twice. In fact, only two Shield winners have even advanced to the final during that span.
And even then, I personally don’t think the Shield ranks very high on Salt Lake’s wish list for the season. Sure, it’s a nice piece of extra hardware to put in a trophy case, but my personal opinion is that it doesn’t matter much, especially given the MLS’s current unbalanced schedule where no two teams place the same schedule.
Right now, even though Salt Lake is in the think of the MLS Cup playoff race, the most important match of the season has nothing to do with the standings.
It comes on Oct. 1, when Real Salt Lake will host D.C. United in the final of the U.S. Open Cup.
Why do I put so much focus on winning the Open Cup instead of MLS play?
The CONCACAF Champions League.
The winner of the Open Cup gets an automatic berth in the Champions League the following season.
To me, the Champions League is far more important than winning anything else, including the MLS Cup.
That’s because the winner gets to claim the mantle as being the best team in the region, and gets a chance to compete for the title of being the best club in the world.
Now, I’m certainly not saying that winning in the MLS isn’t important, on the contrary, you can’t get into the Champions League without being a champion of some sort — the MLS gets three automatic berths, assigned to the Supporter’s Shield winner, MLS Cup winner, and the MLS Cup runner-up.
The winner of the Open Cup and Canadian Championships are also awarded a berth in the tournament, both of which are perennially claimed by MLS clubs.
With that in mind, I firmly believe that everything Salt Lake does over the next two weekends in MLS play, should be to accomplish two goals. Get closer to clinching a fifth straight MLS Cup playoff berth, and getting ready for the Open Cup final.
This weekend’s clash with San Jose, last season’s Shield winner, which is currently just outside the playoff picture, gives Salt Lake a perfect opportunity to do exactly that in the comforts of Rio Tinto Stadium.
And it can do it without the added pressure of being in the pole position in front of a pack of hungry teams trying to catch up.
You can follow Justin Johnson on Twitter at: @jjohnson801 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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