Voices: Joseph Lowery

Why each frontrunner will or won't win the 2022 MLS Supporters' Shield

0830 Supporters Shield Race

It is officially crunch time, people. Decision Day is a little more than a month away (Oct. 9), which means fringe Audi MLS Cup Playoffs teams are clawing tooth and nail to get above the line and the league’s best teams are racing to the Supporters’ Shield.

With seven or eight games left for almost every team in MLS, let’s take a look at why the league’s top teams will – or won’t – win the Shield in 2022.

  • Points: 57 (2.11 ppg)
  • Place: 1st in West
  • Record: 18W-6L-3D

Why they will

There are a couple of big reasons to back LAFC in the Supporters’ Shield race.

First, they have a solid lead at the top of the Shield standings right now. As of today, Steve Cherundolo’s team is sitting on 57 points through 27 games, which averages out to 2.11 points per game. The next closest team, the Philadelphia Union, is sitting on 54 points through 28 games, which comes out to 1.93 points per game. LAFC have a nice little cushion up in the league’s top spot.

Second, LAFC have more talent than any team in MLS. Heck, they might even have more talent than any team in MLS history. Gareth Bale, Carlos Vela and Cristian Arango are all match-winners. Denis Bouanga and Cristian Tello could be game-changers, too, as those summertime signings arrive. Then there’s Ilie Sanchez sitting deep in midfield, Jose Cifuentes putting up insane numbers (he leads the league in American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric), and depth in the backline.

With their talent and current record, LAFC have everything they need to secure the Shield.

Why they won’t

Well, because the cracks are starting to show, aren’t they?

With two losses in their last two games, LAFC are making this a much closer race than they would have hoped. For all of their talent, they may not have the midfield depth to truly dominate down the stretch. Without Ilie in midfield against Austin FC in Friday's 4-1 loss, LAFC looked lost.

Plus, LAFC are sixth in the league in pressures per 90 minutes in the final third according to Second Spectrum. Will they still be able to leverage their press into high-level chances with Bale and Vela in the lineup at the same time?

Cherundolo has an impressive squad, but with so much recent shuffling, there are some big questions for him to answer before Decision Day rolls around.

  • Points: 54 (1.93 ppg)
  • Place: 1st in East
  • Record: 15W-4L-9D

Why they will

Because the Philadelphia Union are hotter than my Phoenix driveway on a summer day, baby!

The Union have the most wins by six or more goals of any team in MLS history. That’s impressive enough on its own…but then you remember that all four of those blowout wins have come in the last 10 games and your mind starts to explode.

Back in June when the Union were drawing every game, Jim Curtin talked about needing a playmaker to help add depth to his team’s attack. Well, the Secondary Transfer Window has come and gone and Philly’s front office chose not to sign any big-time attackers. Even without a new signing, the Union’s attack is hot right now.

Their passing completion rates are better than they were during the first few months of the year. They’re not losing the ball as much. Alejandro Bedoya is passing from deeper areas. Jack McGlynn is adding some quality in midfield. Oh, and per Second Spectrum, they’ve scored the second-most goals from set pieces and are averaging the second-most xG per restart since Curtin’s comments about needing a new piece.

The Union are going to win the Shield because their attacking play is finally rivaling their defensive work (league-low 20 goals against).

Why they won’t

Not to be that guy, but are we really sure that Philadelphia's attacking outburst is sustainable? Sure, they’ve been scoring touchdowns left and right, but they’ve been scoring those touchdowns against D.C. United, Houston Dynamo FC and the Colorado Rapids.

In their games against FC Dallas, Orlando City SC and Inter Miami CF (all potential or probable playoff teams) over the last six weeks, the Union have come up empty.

If you take away Philly’s set pieces and transition attacking and make them beat you with their possession, you have a real chance against them. Since Curtin’s comments about needing something more in the attack, the Union are still just 10th in MLS in open-play xG per 90 minutes against organized defenses, per Second Spectrum.

The goals are here. But are they here to stay?

  • Points: 51 (1.89 ppg)
  • Place: 2nd in West
  • Record: 15W-6L-6D

Why they will

Because Austin Football Club are a team of destiny. Forged in the fire of Matthew McConaughey's djembe, Austin FC are literally not allowed to lose. I don’t make the rules, folks. I’m just telling you like it is.

Okay, fine. Austin FC can lose, but it doesn’t happen very often. They’re still within spitting distance of LAFC and have gotten the better of their Western Conference rivals in both of their meetings this season.

Austin FC’s Supporters’ Shield qualifications have to start with their attack. According to Second Spectrum, Josh Wolff and Co. are averaging 1.1 open-play xG per 90 minutes since July 1, which is the fifth-best tally in the league. With their ability to create quality scoring chances (and their, frankly, ridiculous finishing hot-streak), Austin are dangerous. And with Emiliano Rigoni yet to make his debut, there’s room for even more attacking sauce down in Texas.

The star of it all? Sebastian Driussi, the Golden Boot presented by Audi leader (with 19g/7a) and a Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunner. He's carried them far and will likely continue to do so.

Why they won’t

Defending? Defending. Austin have given up at least two goals in four of their last six games. And it’s not just that Austin FC are getting unlucky defensively due to some opponent over-performance.

No, the numbers paint a picture of a leaky defensive team. According to Second Spectrum, Austin allow the seventh most open-play xG per 90 minutes, with 0.97, and the eighth-most non-penalty xG per 90 minutes, with 1.19. That’s not a comically high number, but it is higher than any of the other primary Supporters’ Shield contenders.

Austin FC’s attacking ability might be enough to carry them to a trophy in the postseason, but their defensive lapses could cause problems in the Shield race.

  • Points: 49 (1.81 ppg)
  • Place: 2nd in East
  • Record: 15W-8L-4D

Why they will

Because Wilfried Nancy is a genius.

I’m being completely serious. Since taking over for Thierry Henry back in March 2021, Nancy has helped shape CF Montréal into one of the league’s absolute best teams. Montréal just missed the playoffs last year, but they played some excellent possession soccer out of Nancy’s flexible three-at-the-back shape. This year, they’re doing the exact same thing, but at an even higher level.

According to American Soccer Analysis, Montréal are in the top five in MLS in expected goal differential per game, xG allowed per game, and expected points per game.

Their strong, yet mailable, possession structure can take them a long way. The fact one of the league’s most imposing attackers, Djordje Mihailovic, is sticking around for the rest of the season before is also a major bonus.

Why they won’t

They’re just too far behind.

Nancy’s team is sitting on 49 points through 27 games, with a 1.81 ppg figure. That puts them fourth behind Austin’s 1.89 ppg, Philly’s 1.93, and LAFC’s 2.11. If Mihailovic hadn’t missed a stretch of the season with injury, we might be having a different conversation.

Mihailovic’s injury (ankle, knee) does bring up one more point about CF Montréal's season: I’m not sure there’s enough top-end talent in their squad for them to truly compete for trophies like the Supporters’ Shield. They play great soccer and they have some great pieces, but with only one Designated Player in Victor Wanyama, Montréal aren’t using all of the available roster mechanisms. That lowers their ceiling.

Between their one DP and the points gap between them and some of the other Shield contenders, Montréal should focus on preparing for a playoff run.