The Supporters' Shield started the beginning of its long 2016 journey last weekend. With the Colorado Rapids near to a chance to close it out with a win at Portland, the actual, physical Supporters’ Shield made its way into Providence Park for a potential hand-over.
But then the Timbers managed to grind out a 1-0 win -- so the Shield quietly made its way out of the venue, its whereabouts kept secret until this Sunday. That's when it will likely -- but not absolutely -- re-emerge at StubHub Center, in case FC Dallas manage to take it in a win over the LA Galaxy (4 pm ET, FS1).
So why such a winding and secretive trip? It's because the Shield, one of the most beloved pieces of hardware among MLS fans, belongs to supporters, and only supporters. Created in 1999 by a group of MLS fans of multiple teams who developed the idea through an email listserv, it's been awarded annually to the team with the best regular-season record.
Last year, the New York Red Bulls snagged it in a Decision Day win at the Chicago Fire, their second Shield in the award's history. But this year, it's bound for a hand-over. So who actually tracks it and physically hands it over?
Indeed, MLS blessed the Shield's creation, with then-Commissioner Doug Logan and soccer broadcaster Phil Schoen among the donors who helped pay for the original trophy to be made its first year. But the actual trophy is managed by the Independent Supporters’ Council, a coalition of supporters’ groups representing MLS and lower-division teams.
A new, improved version of the Supporters’ Shield was created in 2013, with the original slated to go to the National Soccer Hall of Fame being built at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium. But the current iteration retains its Stanley Cup-like mystique in that there’s only one, passed from one team’s supporters to the other’s each year, with no replicas created for trophy cases. (In fact, it's engraved by the same company that does engraving for the Stanley Cup.)
With the last three seasons’ Supporters’ Shield races coming down to late-season and even Decision Day matches, it’s been challenging for the ISC’s Supporters’ Shield Foundation to orchestrate the trophy’s transfer.
“We’ve definitely been doing a lot more scoreboard-watching,” said Kevin Zelko, a board member and past president of the Supporters’ Shield Foundation, and of Seattle Sounders FC supporters’ group Gorilla FC. “In past years, you’ll usually see one team running away with it.”
In 2014, it also proved easy to figure out where to get the Shield in time. The Sounders and the LA Galaxy were the top two contenders, and finished the season with a home-and-away series that decided the Shield race. At that year's Decision Day match in Seattle between the two teams, the Sounders won 2-0 and the Shield was actually displayed on the field. But, Zelko says, that can only happen if the two teams in contention are playing each other.
From there, the Shield enjoyed some serious adventures around Seattle -- especially when supporters took it to the top of Mt. Rainier as part of a cancer-research fundraiser.
Photo by Brian Houle
Last year, the New York Red Bulls also looked likely to take the Shield, and the ISC managed to get it to Toyota Park in Chicago, for the winning team to celebrate with it in person. From there, soon after, it went into the care of Empire Supporters Club board member Steve Ferrezza, who kept the Shield at his house for most of the year.
The shield's tenure there, he says, included all the typical New York City tourist rounds. “We took it to the Empire State Building then, the Statue of Liberty," he says. "This [past] year, we did take it to Santa at the Macy’s on 34th Street for pictures," says Ferezza,"and I know it went down to the Jersey Shore one weekend.” The trophy did, of course, make it to Opening Day and several other key matches during the season.
Photo courtesy of Steve Ferrezza
But none of that early Shield predicting has worked out this year, with the Rapids and Dallas racing neck and neck. As such, the ISC used a member of its network to get the trophy from New York to Portland last week. This didn't go totally smoothly, however.
For the second time in recent history, the trophy went missing for several hours after the plane touched down due to an airline mix-up. “Unfortunately, it’s too big to be brought on to a plane as a carry-on, so it has to be checked in,” Zelko says. (And while the trophy usually has an ISC member accompanying it on its travels, it has also occasionally journeyed across the country solo via FedEx.)
Since the Rapids didn't win it, though, it now looks more likely that FC Dallas will take the trophy. So about a dozen Dallas fans will trek out to Southern California to be part of a possible trophy presentation. “The team has an hour between the end of the game and when they have to head back to the airport, so we’ll do something quick on the field and then get everybody to a bar,” says Bailey Brown, Dallas Beer Guardians president and one of the team’s ISC representatives involved in the ceremony.
Since it’s an away game for the potential winners, it will be a subtle celebration in the corner of the stadium, rather than an elaborate affair at midfield. As Zelko explains, “We’ll do it politely; there won’t really be a hoisting of the trophy.” As with past celebrations, the trophy will pass from ISC representative to the winning team’s supporter representative, then to the team itself, and then back to the supporters.
If Dallas falters and the Rapids end up winning the Shield, the ISC will coordinate a ceremony to happen when the Rapids host a playoff match. David Wegner, a leader of Rapids supporters' group C38, notes they still have a “puncher’s chance,” after all.
Still, Decision Days of late have produced drama, and there’s no guarantee that a suddenly-Mauro Diaz-less Dallas can get past the Galaxy. “Whenever we’re communicating with supporters about the Shield," Zelko says, "the email always starts off, ‘If you win.’”