We all know what the Supporters Shield is: the award given to the MLS team that finishes the regular season with the best record. But do you know what the actual Shield looks like?
"Oh no, no no no, I really don't, I don't know," Freddy Adu said.
"Boris, help me out here," Ben Olsen said to one of the team's public relations staffers.
"I know we have one upstairs, I've just never had a chance to look at it," goalie Troy Perkins said. "I think there is, isn't there? In the trophy case?" [Correct answer: No.]
"No clue man," Alecko Eskandarian said. "There is no shield, it's a trophy, isn't it? It's like medieval times, like I'm knight with a shield? Yeah, we all get shields to take home and guard us. This is my first time winning "The Supporters Shield," so I'm kind of excited to see what happens. Maybe we all get knighted, I don't know."
Perkins then emerged from the weight room with a circular weight. "Here's your shield," he said.
The actual shield can be seen here. Yesterday I held it in my arms. I even raised it up, as if I were a champion. The first championship trophy I've ever hoisted, not counting my Little League all-star team trophy from 1988. It's surprisingly non-heavy, and every champion's name is inscribed on the base, just like in my fantasy football league. It's lost a little bit of its luster, physically, and it doesn't exactly look like a shield. More like something out of Star Trek. Something called "The Vinstar Device," maybe.
"Isn't that the ugliest thing you've ever seen?" asked DCU fan Matt Mathai.
He's allowed to say things like that, since he actually helped create the trophy and used to drive around with it in the back seat of his car,
wrapped in blankets and stored in a bag for safe keeping. Find someone who can say the same thing about the Stanley Cup.
Here's what happened. When MLS was formed, many longtime fans were distressed at some of the league's sops to Americana: the clock that ran down instead of up, the shootouts, the playoff system. These fans of rival teams were, in many cases, quite friendly from years supporting the U.S. national team together--"now as we mature, we're learning how to hate each other," Mathai said--and they oftentimes formed local MLS supporters groups. So they decided, on their own, to institute an award for the team that finished with the best regular season record, which is the standard the rest of the world uses to crown its champions. Some fans wanted to call it the "Supporters Scudetto," after the name of the Serie A championship in Italy, but others insisted that we shouldn't be completely stealing European terminology.
"I wouldn't know a Scudetto if it came up and bit me in the ass," Mathai pointed out. "It just doesn't mean anything to most American fans."
So instead it was called the Supporters Shield. (Esky on the name: "It sounds like a charity or a trust fund or something--'Supporters Shield: In Case Something Goes Wrong.'")
Anyhow, the fan clubs cobbled together something like $1,000 for the trophy (which is supposed to represent a "stylized shield"), with Mathai's group (the Screaming Eagles) chipping in $300, and before the 1999 season the award was presented for the first time. This was originally something separate from MLS, presented from one supporters group to another, but as the league has gradually softened its Americanizations, the trophy has gotten more official. For the first time this year, the winner received a bid into the CONCACAF Champions Cup (an international tourney), and tomorrow, there will be a fancy on-field presentation of the trophy to 2006 Shield winner DCU. The club received the trophy this week in a fancy black padded shipping crate. No more blanketed trips in the back seats of cars, I guess.
Many MLS fans, of course, still want the Shield to take precedence over the more Americanized playoff system, and many of the players agree that the current system should be changed.
"I think for the American culture it's good, because every sport we have has a playoff: basketball, baseball, everything has playoffs," Perkins said. "But I think structurally wise, it sucks. Because you play 32 regular season games, you're busting your ass every day, and then you can go in the playoffs and not even win the Cup, and you can be the best team. And I don't think that's fair to any team in the league. It almost makes most of the regular season games not even worth showing up, because if you still make the playoffs you'll have a chance of winning the Cup. No other league in the world has that."
"Maybe it's not the time right now but in the future, hopefully in the near future I think we should go to some type of table system," Olsen said. "Look, the championship is about who is the best team this year, the team who throughout the season gets the most points and gets the most wins. I think [American fans] realize that that's the way soccer is, and that it has been for a long time. "
"I just think that's the fair way to do it," Adu agreed.
(For the record, only four of the league's 10 champions thus far finished either first or tied for the first in the regular season. An MLS spokesman said that the league's technical committee is reviewing all aspects of the league's structure, including conferences and playoff format, and that in general, "it would be safe to say that some changes are expected, probably as soon as next year," although they're not yet talking publicly about specifics.)
Anyhow, when Mathai watches tomorrow's Supporters Shield presentation, he'll feel "pride, that it's something that came from the fans, and satisfaction, that the league is starting to move to something that the world over can understand," he said. The Shield "looks a little beat up, it's kind of lost a little of the shine...but I'll tell you what, for what it represents, it's the best trophy we have."