Ahead of Sunday's match against the New York Red Bulls, Bruce Arena spoke to members of the media about his expectations for the upcoming competition. The first thing he was asked to address is the lack of success Supporter's Shield winners have had in MLS Cup.
"[MLS Cup and Supporter's Shiled] two separate competitions," Arena said. "They're unique in themselves, one has nothing to do with the other."
In sixteen years of MLS Cups, the regular season winner has only won the competition five times. Four of those instances are before 2003, when MLS went to the current playoff system. Since the quarterfinals became an aggregate home and home, the Shield winner has only appeared in the MLS Cup twice, and won it only once (2008 Columbus Crew).
"We just finished two competitions, the MLS regular season where we won the Supporters' Shield and the CONCACAF Champions League group stage. Now we're in another competition. I believe every competition you enter into on an even field, and that's the challenge of competition."
It's awful polite for Bruce Arena to say, but this isn't exactly the March Madness tournament. The field is not even. The wildcard system and now the play in games keep the competition open to many teams, but the various roads to the final very different. The #2 Seattle Sounders have to play #3 Real Salt Lake tomorrow; while LA gets the ten seed which happens to play in New York.
"Were gonna go about it the same way. We've been successful doing what we're doing, why would we change anything? If we needed to change anything at this time, I would think we were doing something wrong."
It has to be conceded, that this year's Galaxy at full strength hasn't had a slip up game in some time. Against New York and against Houston, the Galaxy purposefully sent out squads that wouldn't be trotted out under ideal circumstances. Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan have been hurt. They should be returning for the playoffs, even though they'll both also having national team appearances to make as well.
Of course, Brian Strauss pointed out that the real giant killer in MLS Cup has nothing to do with MLS at all. The Champions League, while not being some etherial curse, has worn down teams historically. Since 2008, when CCL expanded, 10 of the 12 two legged quarterfinal matchups have been won by the team that played fewer games. LA were benefactors of that stat last year, as Seattle had played six more games due to CONCACAF obligations.
"I think our league isn't prepared, I think our teams aren't prepared for the Champions League. We don't have any quality depth in our rosters and the traveling is actually quite shocking. How time consuming it is, and how much wear and tear it takes on your body."
This is the big advantage New York has. They've played fewer games, and they've been heating up recently. The Galaxy have gotten to rest for a week, but then they've had to make a cross country flight. The toll that long travel has taken this year on Robbie Keane, David Beckham, and Landon Donovan has been obvious.
Depth is the key. It would seem playing Sunday like they did in Seattle last year would be the way to go. I remember Simon Borg complaining on the Extra Time podcast that the Galaxy played ten men back the whole game.
There is no shame in playing this opening leg as defensively as possible. In fact, that's sort of the point. Thierry Henry can tear up just about any defense, sure. Just park the bus, flip it over, and use it as a shield as you bring out a Gatling gun.