Supporters' Shield curse? Philadelphia Union the latest winners to fall short in MLS Cup playoffs

Sergio Santos - Philadelphia Union - frustrated

The Philadelphia Union, after winning the 2020 Supporters’ Shield, hoped to turn their regular-season success into postseason glory by raising MLS Cup for the first time in club history. 

So, the Union didn’t hide emotions after losing 2-0 against the New England Revolution on Tuesday night, falling in Round One of the Eastern Conference bracket against a club they previously went 4W-0L-1D against this season across all competitions. To state the obvious, a double doesn’t await Jim Curtin’s team this year.

But history shows that the Union are far from alone in failing to carry their Shield-winning form into the playoffs. Just seven of the league’s 25 Supporters' Shield winners have also lifted MLS Cup, which translates into 28%. 

The last teams to win the Shield and MLS Cup? Toronto FC in 2017, as followed by the LA Galaxy in 2011. That TFC team also won the Canadian Championship (treble) and nearly broke MLS’s Concacaf Champions League drought, while the 2011 Galaxy had legends like Landon Donovan, David Beckham and Robbie Keane leading the way. 

Here’s a rundown of the Shield-MLS Cup champions over the years, with most concentrated around the league’s early years. Only D.C. United and the LA, two of the league's most-storied clubs, have accomplished this feat twice.

Shield & MLS Cup winners

Toronto FC
LA Galaxy
Columbus Crew
LA Galaxy
Kansas City Wizards
D.C. United
D.C. United

MLS simply had fewer teams back then, with its steady growth not truly taking root until the mid 2000s. More clubs working within the same financial picture (relatively speaking) creates more parity, so achieving sustained success is more difficult.

Another layer is playoff teams now meet in a single-elimination format. There used to be wiggle room in the second leg of a two-legged series, but now it’s do-or-die – a tough ask even when playing at home and owning the No. 1 seed.

While the Union are frustrated and disappointed with themselves after getting blanked by the Revs, they’re joined by 17 other Shield winners (72%) throughout MLS’s first quarter century. Then again, the past two Shield winners – New York Red Bulls in 2018 and LAFC in 2019 – at least reached a conference final, so departing the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs this early will sting for Curtin's group.