Before ESPN or FOX Sports, before BigSoccer.com or #SoccerTwitter, there was the North American Soccer mailing list.
A beaming list featuring approximately 3,000 of the continent’s most engaged soccer enthusiasts, the NAS list served as a Mecca for discussion and as a breeding ground for ideas among the game’s most avid enthusiasts in the early days of Major League Soccer. Of course, there was more than just discussion. One of the greatest outcomes from those early, virtual meetings of the minds was the concept and eventual creation, of a trophy separate from MLS Cup, a trophy created by the fans, a trophy awarded each year to the side that finished with the nascent league’s best regular-season record.
Sixteen years after its creation, the Supporters’ Shield – owned and managed independently by the league’s supporters – has become a unique honor in North American sport, growing in both stature and recognition and evolving from its humble beginnings into a prize valued and sought by all 20 MLS clubs.
The idea was first raised on the NAS list by Tampa Bay Mutiny fan Nick Lawrus in early 1997. It’s possible Lawrus was motivated by the fact that the Mutiny had run away with the inaugural 1996 regular season, only to be dumped in the conference finals by eventual MLS Cup champions D.C. United. While the genesis might have come from one supporter peeved that his team missed out on hardware, the proposal gained support as other NAS members recognized Tampa Bay’s success deserved some sort of recognition. The idea picked up more steam with the premise of the trophy being a supporter-owned award, showing one of the first true successes of the do-it-yourself attitude now common among North American soccer supporters.
The original proposal was called “Supporters' Scudetto” before representatives from each of the 10 original MLS clubs settled on the “Supporters' Shield” moniker it still bears today. But the project stalled because of disagreements centered around the name, fundraising and whether to factor in points earned in the old MLS shootout. Months passed before it was finally picked back up the following year by Kansas City Wizards supporter representative Sam Pierron.
“It was a way for supporters to make a contribution to the development of the league,” Pierron told MLSsoccer.com. “It just indicated that we were there to support the league as a project, as well as each of our individual teams.”
Despite renewed enthusiasm, the project may have never have gotten off the ground without the backing of one of MLS’ leading voices at the time. With Pierron spearheading the fundraising effort, the project received an early $500 donation from Phil Schoen, then ESPN’s lead MLS play-by-play man and now the lead announcer for beIN SPORTS.
“I kind of felt it was almost a responsibility to put my money where my mouth was,” Schoen told MLSsoccer.com. “I’d been a soccer fan forever, and I am one of those that views winning the regular season as a more worthy accomplishment than winning the sprint race toward the cup final.”
“Phil was one of us,” Pierron recalled. “He was a league broadcaster, but before that, he was a supporter. He was in a position to help, and the donation came from a real genuine place. I’m not sure what the end quality of the Shield would have been if not for Phil stepping up early on.”
Schoen’s donation made the group of Supporters' Shield proponents believe a $3,000 fundraising goal could be achieved. At the first MLS Supporter Summit around MLS Cup ’98, the final amount of needed funds was raised by collection from those in attendance as well as a personal donation from then-MLS Commissioner Doug Logan.
With a chevron designed by Pierron and crafted by University of Kansas art student Paula Richardson, the Shield was first awarded to 1998 regular-season champions LA Galaxy prior to one of the team’s first games the following season. From there, the Shield took on the tradition of being passed on by the supporters of the previous year’s winner to the supporters of the next year’s, either being presented at that team’s final regular-season game or first home playoff match.
While it took some time to build traction, the Supporters' Shield took a giant step forward in 2006, when the US Soccer Federation announced it would award the winner with an outright berth in the following year’s CONCACAF Champions' Cup. The move automatically boosted the status of the award, giving MLS clubs an incentive to go after the league’s best regular-season record.
With the award taking on greater significance and the fast-track development of supporter culture growing around the league, an idea to create a new Supporters' Shield began around the MLS Supporters Summit at the 2010 MLS Cup in Toronto. It continued to evolve at the newly created Independent Supporters Council meetings the following two years in Los Angeles and Portland. Just like the old Supporters' Shield, the new award found its driving force in Kansas City, this time in the form of Sporting supporter Sean Dane.
“As the shield grew in stature, we wanted to retain the idea and reality that this award was created by the fans for the teams as our recognition,” Dane said.
Out of the ISC meeting in Portland came the creation of the Supporters' Shield Foundation, a registered non-profit which was setup to fund a new Supporters' Shield, as well as promote and manage the award going forward. Instead of the $3,000 required for the original Shield, a quote of $18,000 was taken from a trophy manufacturer in Toronto.
Dane admits that with the growth of individual supporters' associations around North America, the Shield probably could have been fully funded and quickly built with donations from some of the larger groups. Instead of sourcing funds through supporter associations, the Foundation reached out to individuals in order to raise a large chunk of the money through the “I Support the Shield” scarf drive.
“We wanted the new shield to be connected to the individual supporters instead of just the associations,” Dane said. “We made 2000 scarves and distributed them throughout supporters' groups and sold them to raise funds for the shield to be built.”
“Looking back, raising that amount of money was much easier than raising a small fraction 15 years earlier,” added Pierron. “The scale and equity that supporters around the league have now has grown so much.”
With funds raised, the new Supporters' Shield was completed in early 2013. Made of sterling silver and stainless steel, the new shield weighs in at 35 pounds. The middle of the shield pays homage to the original trophy, with the chevron design front and center, and the piece was built for expandability as its winners' names are added to it annually.
Seeking a way for the new prize to touch all MLS supporters, the foundation organized a tour for the trophy to snake through the league’s 19 supporters' associations prior to the end of the regular season that year.
“There’s an entire generation of fans that didn’t have a connection to the original process and probably didn’t understand why the Shield was important to us and the league,” Dane explained. “We wanted to re-engage that individual connection to the Supporters' Shield. Everybody that wanted to come and see it could see it, identify with it, hear the story first-hand from the leaders of the supporters' groups involved, to really engage everyone with the idea.”
After completing its 19-stop tour, the new Shield was first awarded to the New York Red Bulls on the final day of the 2013 season and to the Seattle Sounders last year. As both clubs relinquished the prize, they asked the Foundation if they could make a replica to store in their trophy cabinets, with the answer being a firm, “No.”
"We liked the idea that it’s yours while you have it, and that’s it,” Dane said. “You have to win it again to get it back in your trophy case. We believe in the pain with the glory of it all. It sucks to have to give it to someone else.”
The Shield race looks like it will again come down to the wire this year, with FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids locked into a tough fight for the trophy. Barring something unforeseen, the Shield will likely be in attendance in Colorado or in LA, where FCD will play their finale, on Decision Day on Oct. 23.
While he regrets that the new shield won’t be landing in Kansas City this year, Pierron is pleased with what the award has evolved into.
“It’s designed to be a really permanent award and fixture in the league season every year,” he said. “Looking back on where the concept started to today’s Supporters' Shield, the growth has been phenomenal.”