Why The Supporters' Shield Matters

By the people, for the people

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A few weeks ago, American Soccer Twitter was rowdier than usual, with the announcement by the Supporters’ Shield Foundation that the Supporters’ Shield would not be awarded in 2020. The decision came amidst the most chaotic and tumultuous MLS season ever because of...well… you know (gestures arms wildly at the world).

People. Were. Upset. The story gained traction in the media, many supporters voiced their opposition and eventually the decision was rolled back with the assurance that a Shield winner would be crowned at the end of the regular season.

Beyond kicking up some dust on the Internet, the incident provided an opportunity for fans to revisit the Shield’s importance and significance. Because the Supporters’ Shield, which is awarded to the team that finishes with the best record during the MLS regular season, represents the best of Major League Soccer. It’s a symbol of the long history of supporter involvement within the league, a testament to sustained excellence, and a reminder of the unique bond between players and supporters within the North American game.

The idea for a Supporters’ Shield first came about in 1997 when Tampa Bay Mutiny supporter Nick Lawrus floated the idea across one of the early email listservs that bound 1990s MLS diehards together. The idea faltered early, but a year later, Kansas City supporter Sam Pierron tried again, with a group of interested individuals who helped round up enough funds to create an actual trophy. (For a more in-depth look at the Shield’s origins, check out this article.)

“I just remember seeing the chevron of the original trophy and thinking, well, it may not physically be a thing of beauty, but the symbolism behind it was amazing,” said Mark Fishkin, a longtime New York Red Bulls supporter and host of the Seeing Red podcast. “It was from and of supporters, and created by supporters, purchased by supporters and presented to the supporters of that particular team which finished at the top of the table.”

The trophy was also a way to honor the manner in which most European and South American leagues crowned their champions, outside of the American playoff system. 

“I think it was also a desire among the hardcore soccer fans to properly recognize that everywhere else in the world, in leagues without playoffs, this is how you recognized a champion,” Fishkin said. “It was organic and incredibly meaningful. The Shield itself was small, but the meaning of it was truly massive.”

The Shield got a bump in 2006 when U.S. Soccer announced that the winner would also earn a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League. 

“That was the league and U.S. Soccer really kind of blessing it. I think that gave it a massive lift,” said Fishkin.

Since then the Shield has grown in stature and notoriety, as North American supporter culture has also continued to develop. But it’s still really hard to win one.

That’s because the Shield rewards long-term excellence in a way that MLS Cup cannot. While it’s the big moments that often define an MLS Cup run, it’s the teams as a whole that define a successful Supporters’ Shield season.

“I think the growth of the league has made the Shield more important to people,” said James Lambert, president of D.C. United supporters group, the Screaming Eagles. D.C. United are currently tied with the LA Galaxy for most Shield wins with four each. “You’re playing more teams. I think there’s the feeling that doing it over a whole season, against that many teams, in that many locations is a hard thing to do. I also think as time went on and the league got larger, you saw more great teams that didn’t win MLS Cup.” 

“When I look back at the ‘06-’08 D.C. teams, we had two Shields in there,” he said. D.C. won the 2006 and 2007 Supporters’ Shield with a squad led by the likes of Jamie Moreno, Ben Olsen and Christian Gómez.

“I look back at them now, whether they got knocked out of the playoffs or not, those were really great teams, and I’m happy that there’s something to commemorate that period. I think people look at LAFC last year as the perfect example of a truly great team, no matter what happened in the playoffs. So there’s more of an appreciation for what the Shield is.”

The Shield can be especially poignant when it’s the first piece of hardware for your club, which was the case for the New York Red Bulls in 2013. Led by Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, they came back from an early deficit to soundly defeat the Chicago Fire 5-2 on the last day of the season and win their first trophy in the club’s 18 year history, and their first of three Shields. 

But it’s what happened afterwards that truly gets to the heart of what the Supporters’ Shield is about. 

“The majority of supporters in the stands didn’t know that the Shield was in the house, because it could have gone elsewhere if New York didn’t win,” Fishkin said of the match against the Fire.

“It was a wonderful surprise,” he said. “I believe something like only 10 people among the supporters groups were aware the Shield was in the house, so when it appeared, there were plenty of tears. It was very emotional.”

There’s a video of the celebration afterwards, as head coach and club legend Mike Petke is addressing the supporters, Henry takes the silverware, shoves it into Petke’s hands and points him towards the South Ward, telling him “Stop talking. Go with your fans. It’s been 18 years, go!”

It’s right there where the true magic of the Shield lies. In the moment when the trophy shifts between the hands of players and fans, knowing that they got to that moment together. 

“One thing that’s driven its importance is that supporters can hand it off and have that celebration with players,” said Lambert. “Anytime you raise a trophy like that, it’s fun. It’s special to see your team raise a trophy in person, and having that bond between supporters handing it off to the players makes it unique.”

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Maybe the commotion from earlier this month was enough to keep the Supporters’ Shield’s importance closer to the front of people’s minds. Maybe seeing the Philadelphia Union hoist their first trophy this weekend, or watching Toronto claim their second Shield, against a year of chaos, will be enough of a reminder of its meaning. Maybe some supporters didn’t have to be reminded of it in the first place.

But regardless, as the Shield gets another moment in the spotlight this weekend, this time for less controversial reasons, it will be another validation of the power of supporters within the game in North America.

“Just like our clubs, it’s ours,” said Lambert. “It’s the trophy that’s made by the supporters. It’s the difference between a trophy that the league institutes or a trophy that a rich man donated long ago, and one that we came up with ourselves, created, funded and sustain. That’s unique in, as far as I know, any part of American sports to have something that’s that important and that actually belongs to the supporters.”