I have a love/hate relationship with the Supporters’ Shield.
I love it because I wrote about it a long time ago, when the idea was first hatched by a group of fans led by Kansas City Wizards supporter Sam Pierron, and the story appeared in a section of ESPN The Magazine we used to call, “Not About the Money.”
I loved how the fans came together to create the trophy.
What I hated – though hate may be too strong a word – is that the battle for the Supporters’ Shield was a flawed competition because of Major League Soccer’s unbalanced schedule.
Basically, I never felt the award to the team with the most regular-season points really worked in a league where one team could quite possibly have an easier schedule than another.
Now, understand, I’ve covered Major League Baseball for the better part of the last quarter century and I know unbalanced schedules are as much a part of the American sports landscape as flat-screen televisions, chicken wings, nachos and cold beer.
So, I don’t dwell on the fact that MLS teams play different schedules and, yeah, that has an impact on lots of stuff. But for a team to get a trophy for it? Well, that doesn’t always sit well with me. Never has.
Yet, this week, I’ve found myself flip-flopping, and I find myself placing a huge amount of importance on the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. An insane amount of importance on it, actually.
But only if the New York Red Bulls can win it.
I know it makes little sense, but I’ve decided that winning the Shield would be a huge deal for the Red Bulls, and would warrant a champagne-soaked locker room celebration.
I will tell you why.
The Red Bulls – who, as you know, were once known as the MetroStars – have not a single trophy in their case.
In 2003, in the midst of a rebuilding year, they advanced to the final of the US Open Cup where they lost 1-0 to the Chicago Fire in front of friends and family at Giants Stadium.
In 2008, at the end of what had been a mediocre season, they went on a playoff run that took them to the MLS Cup final (right), where they lost 3-1 to Columbus.
I’m not saying the Metro/Red Bulls or their fans would have thrown either of those trophies back, but I am saying to win the 2013 MLS Supporters’ Shield would be a more meaningful triumph.
I am saying this because had they won the ‘03 Open Cup or ‘08 MLS Cup and done exactly what they’d done as a franchise in the last four-plus seasons, I’d look back and say those teams just caught a little lightning in a bottle. More lucky than good, would be my take.
But for Mike Petke’s team to prove itself to be better than the rest of MLS over 34 games – even if they’ve played a different schedule than Seattle and Real Salt Lake – would be something this original MLS franchise could trumpet across the land.
The cliche is, “This would be something no one can take away.” And, as we all know, the basis for any good cliche is truth. No one could say the Red Bulls backed in or lucked out.
Prepare a banner unveiling for Opening Day 2014, a highlight video, the works. For real.
It’s been a long, hard road for this franchise.
I know, I was there in the beginning, as the club’s first PR Director in 1996. Second (maybe third) class citizens at Giants Stadium, where the pristine grass was ripped off the dreaded astroturf prior to the club’s first ever playoff run.
There were years when the team would meet at the Meadowlands and await word as to where they’d train that day. They’d get into vans and drive off to Newark or some other park to train.
The team itself, however, was not always as awful as some would lead you to believe. The original team always gave D.C. United all it could handle. Octavio Zambrano’s teams were always a tough out. From 2003-05, they were young and talented and snake-bitten. Were it not for bad luck…
There are a lot of fans who’ve hung in there through the good times and bad, but there are also a lot of fans who bailed, not willing to endure the hard times that really define a supporter.
Yet here they are today, playing in an amazing stadium, with stars like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, and hard-driving veterans like Dax McCarty, and a coach in Petke, who’s lived it.
They have a fair amount of work to do, even thought they sit atop the Supporters’ Shield standings. The chief concern now is getting a result on Sunday night against the Seattle Sounders, who have two games in hand on the Red Bulls and are easily the biggest threat to take the first Shield in their franchise's history.
I think it’s huge.
Win the Shield and they’ve truly earned their first trophy. In the playoffs, if a bad bounce, a questionable call or a cruel act of nature leads to their departure, they can still be proud.
I would not say the same for any other team in the league. For Seattle, a Supporters’ Shield would be nice, but not epic, because they’re still relatively new. For Real Salt Lake, a Shield would be a nice accomplishment, but it's also just another trophy to put alongside their 2009 MLS Cup.
But for the Red Bulls, their players, coaches and fans, it would be amazing.
And for a year, my relationship with the Shield would be free of hate.