MLS Cup vs Supporters’ Shield – What’s The Difference?

Last updated on June 1st, 2022

If you’ve just started following the MLS football season, you may be confused over some of the competitions. Two of the major competitions that American & Canadian teams play in are the MLS Cup and the Supporters Shield.

So how are they different from each other?

Here’s what you need to know:

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The difference between the MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield

The MLS Regular season is a league competition that involves 28 of the top football teams in both the United States and Canada. All clubs are grouped into two separate conferences of 14 teams each: Eastern & Western. 

At the end of the regular season, whatever team finishes with the most points in both conferences is awarded the Supporter’s Shield

Furthermore, the top fourteen teams (seven from each conference), based on points, enter the MLS Cup playoffs and compete against each other for the season’s final crown, the MLS Cup.   

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Here is an in-depth explanation of the differences between both competitions:

Number of teams involved

Each of the 28 teams that compete during the MLS regular season is eligible for the Supporters’ Shield. The only way to win the trophy is to accrue the most number of points during the regular season. 

New England Revolution won their first ever Supporters’ Shield last year.

Since your team plays in the MLS, they have a chance to win the Supporters’ Shield.

However, the MLS Cup is contested by 14 teams: the top seven teams from the Eastern and Western conference. Thus, only these teams get a chance to become the victor of the MLS Cup. 

This is a relatively new format that began in 2019. Before that, the tournament was contested by twelve teams: the top six teams from both conferences. 

Clubs from both the United States and Canada are eligible for the MLS Cup depending on their performances in the regular season

You can find out more about why some Canadian teams play in the MLS.

Your team must finish in the top seven of their conference to compete for the MLS Cup. 

Frequency and duration of the competition

Both competitions are held annually

The MLS regular season is contested from February to October, and the Supporters’ Shield winner is decided at the end of the season

On the other hand, the MLS Cup, and its playoffs, is the culmination of the Major League Soccer season.  After the MLS regular season ends in October, the playoffs usually starts after a two-week break and ends with the cup final in November. 

However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the schedule was affected and the last cup final was held in December. 

New York City FC won their first MLS Cup last year.

Number of matches played

During the MLS regular season, each of the 28 clubs plays 34 games. Each of these games reflect the point standings which consequently determine the Supporters’ Shield.

You can find out more about how a football / soccer table works here.

In contrast, the MLS Cup Playoffs has 13 matches in total contested among 14 teams. This includes 12 matches for the playoff rounds and one final match to decide the victor.

Format of competition

The Supporters’ Shield is determined by the popular double round-robin league format of the MLS regular season. 34 matches are played by each team which include 17 matches at home and 17 matches away –  26 against teams from the same conference and 8 against selected teams from the other conference.

Although the MLS regular season helps determine the participants of the MLS Cup, the competition’s format is different. 

The MLS Cup is determined via the American playoff system utilised in other sports eg. American Football, Basketball, Baseball, etc.

The playoff system brings an original American feel to the global sport of football!

In the MLS Cup, the playoff rounds feature four rounds which include 12 playoff matches (6 for each conference) and one final match to decide the MLS champion

Clubs from the same conference face off against each other first. The playoffs start with the Conference first round, where teams progress to the Conference semifinals.

However, the Eastern & Western Conference league leaders of the regular MLS season automatically qualify for the Conference semifinals. In contrast, each of the other twelve teams will face off against each other in the Conference first round to reach the semifinals. 

This means that if your team finished in the top 7 of the Eastern Conference, they would qualify for the playoffs. Once they do, they play against other teams that made the top 7 in their conference to reach the Conference semifinals. 

However, if they finished as Conference leaders, they would automatically qualify for the Conference semifinals. Once your team wins the Conference Semifinals, they will advance to the Conference finals. 

Both Conference winners will then advance to the MLS Cup Final to contest for the outright Cup. 

This means that only the best team from each conference will make it to the final cup match.

At the 2021 Cup final, Portland Timbers represented the Western Conference against New York City FC from the Eastern Conference.

Only the MLS Cup has a final

Since the Supporters’ Shield is determined by the final standings of the MLS regular season, there is no final match involved

Red Bull New York celebrates winning the Supporters’ Shield on the final matchday.

On the other hand, the MLS Cup hosts a final at the end of the playoff rounds to crown the seasonal champion.

Squad size

Both competitions have the same squad size according to the MLS Roster rules and regulations. This is because both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup trophies are linked to the MLS regular season.

The MLS roster rules allow each club to have an active squad of 30 players. However, only 20 players can occupy the senior roster while 10 other players occupy the supplemental roster. 

Prizes for winning competition

Winners of the Supporters’ Shield are presented with the trophy by the Supporters’ Shield Foundation. In addition to the trophy, the winning team is also awarded a prize money of $155,000 and a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage.

Suppose the winner of the Supporters’ Shield also wins the MLS Cup, the second-ranked team is awarded the CONCAFCL group stage spot. 

Consequently, the Supporters Shield champion will also qualify for the MLS Cup since they finished among the top fourteen teams of the regular season

The winners will also earn a bye for the first round and directly enter the competition at the Conference Semifinals since they finished at the top of their regular season conference.

The MLS Cup champions become the holders of the most prestigious football competition trophy in the United States & Canada

MLS Champions are also awarded a prize money amount of $300,000 for their victorious efforts. In addition, they are granted a berth to the CONCACAF Champions League.

Verdict

MLS CupSupporters’ Shield
Number of teams involved1428
Frequency of competitionAnnualAnnual
Duration of competitionOctober – NovemberFebruary – October
Number of matches per teamMaximum of 434 
Format of competition Playoff eliminationDouble round-robin
Presence of finalYesNo
Squad size3030
Prize for winning$300, 000 prize money
CONCACAF Champions League spot
$155, 000 prize money
CONCACAF Champions League spot

Which is more prestigious: the MLS Cup or the Supporters Shield?

Based on the MLS system, the regular season is more of a preliminary competition to determine the main deal, the MLS Cup. Every team’s aim throughout the regular season is to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs by finishing in their conference’s top 7.

The MLS Cup has been the main trophy of Major League Soccer since the competition’s inaugural season in 1996. It is thus considered the most prestigious trophy in American & Canadian football.

On the other hand, the Supporters Shield was conceptualised by fans and inaugurally awarded in 1999 to recognise regular season efforts. However, it was not until 2006 that the USSF decided to grant the trophy an important status by awarding a CONCACAFCL spot.

The MLS Cup is considered more rewarding to win than the Supporters Shield. 

If your team wins the MLS Cup, they would be considered the indisputable football champions of the United States and Canada.

Conclusion

The MLS Cup and Supporters Shield are 2 of the major football competitions organised by Major League Soccer in the United States & Canada. 

Although they are both linked to the MLS regular season, they differ in several ways and offer unique characteristics in terms of format and prizes.

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