In a single table system, tomorrow afternoon's game between the Sounders and the Galaxy would be a showdown to decide not merely the championship, but status as perhaps the greatest MLS team of all time.
Fortunately, this is MLS, so there is more at stake.
Well, quantitatively speaking.
The relatively low status of the Supporters Shield in MLS compared to similar competitions (with the interesting and frequently ignored exception of Liga MX) will, like the poor, always be with us. Note that after the Galaxy botched The Most Dangerous Lead In Soccer, Landon Donovan guaranteed LA fans that they would win MLS Cup...not the Supporters Shield.
Now is probably the time where we argue about why playoffs are superior to single-table, or vice versa. Sadly, this argument would be pointless. There has not been a major professional sports league with a single table in the United States since 1932, and even the unwieldy, hidebound monster that is American college football has adopted a playoff. MLS Cup would have to start draining money from the league on a monstrous scale before Major League Soccer breaks that trend. Anyone terribly upset by this may reflect that we watch the World Cup Final, not the World Cup Group Final.
Playoffs and championship finals help increase drama. This weekend's scenario would be the ideal for a single table, but it would also be comparatively rare. Major League Soccer Soccer reminded us that this is only the fourth time that the Shield will be decided on the final weekend. (In 2001, due to tragic events in early September, the teams did not know at the time that they were playing their final regular season game, so Miami was effectively awarded that year's Supporters Shield after the fact.) This means that in a single table system, we'd have had very little drama indeed to wrap up the season.
There are five matches this weekend that will have playoff implications, not counting New England figuring out whether to go in as a 2 or 3 seed in the East. Whether the Chivas USA-San Jose match would have been more interesting with potential relegation at stake, than Dallas-Portland or Kansas City-New York fighting for playoffs, is an exercise I will leave to your imagination. I mean, just imagine sitting through Chivas USA-San Jose and actually having to care about it. The playoff race may be ersatz drama, but it is still dramatic, and almost by definition the quality of soccer is better in the middle of the table than at the bottom.
Hey, about that New England game. The difference between 2 and 3 would have been fairly freaking enormous if MLS teams hadn't gotten greedy and wanted to make sure every team fourth and above got a home playoff game. Every year about this time I whine that we don't have an NFL-style one-off, so apologies if I repeat myself yet again. But home-and-home, especially with away goals, is a system designed to replicate a neutral field. It was pioneered in European competition, with the admirable premise that there should be no on-field advantage awarded to the champion of Italy over the champion of Spain. That ideal has been beaten severely over the years, what with smaller nations' champs having to play against other nations' also-rans, but its imperfections are slight compared to the unfairness a one-off game at one team's home field.
That unfairness is exactly what the regular season was supposed to prove, and reward. If it weren't for MLS Cup now being a home field one-off, the regular season would be colossally pointless.
As it is - oh, hey, even that time-filler this weekend between Montreal and DC United might mean something. You see, if the Galaxy lose to Seattle, and DC beats Montreal, then DC United would have home field advantage in MLS Cup in any matchup except the Sounders. And if you don't think that's important, well, there's a school of thought that says Houston instead of Los Angeles has three or four stars were it not for home field, and I've been thinking about taking some classes there.
It's insane, of course, to have a different format round to round in playoffs, but frankly I'm afraid if I say that too loudly the league will change it to the Liga MX system.
So all of a sudden DC has to care this weekend, too. In fact, home field for MLS Cup is probably the only reason for the Galaxy to field a first-choice team Saturday. A draw was the worst outcome for LA at home last week - now, they can't simply rest Landon and Robbie and Robbie (to go with Omar Gonzalez's enforced break).
What? Seattle doesn't need to say goodbye to Landon, they sell out the place with Sounders fans who will be mollified by seeing their team win a double.
So what is really at stake, when Los Angeles goes to Seattle? Historic bragging rights. A team that wins the Shield and another trophy, let alone both the other trophies, will be a leading candidate for "best MLS team ever" discussions. That's an intangible bit of immortality that, sadly, usually eludes Shield and Open Cup winners. Whoever wins Saturday will have a chance to be part of those conversations, for what that's worth.
Which, if they botch the playoffs, would be very little. And since the playoffs are designed for maximum botch-worthiness, and because the league is designed for maximum parity, it's no longer even an upset when a first place team loses in the first round. With the possible exception of the fifth place team in the West, a team I expect Dallas or Salt Lake to make very short work of, every playoff team can rightfully consider themselves a serious MLS Cup contender.
The last team to take the Open Cup and the Supporters Shield into the MLS Cup final was the Chicago Fire in 2003. How often are they in your "best team ever" discussions? That's what is really at stake here.
As Churchill said, "This is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end. But tomorrow morning, I shall be sober."