With its gutsy result at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA, FC Dallas celebrated its second major trophy of the 2016 campaign, a trophy that for a week or so seemed to hang in doubt with a surging Colorado Rapids team that looked to play the spoiler. All Dallas needed was a draw, and they got it. Afterwards, the team and a number of fans who made the trip began to celebrate a remarkable moment for this club.
At long last, the Shield was coming home.
In the coverage of FC Dallas' Shield win, though, I realized something that has bugged plenty of fans. Let me be upfront that I'm not suggesting my perspective here is new or unique or I have somehow stumbled upon a breaking story. But I'll just be the next lowly blogger in the history of soccer fans in the US to raise this theme:
Now, I'm not suggesting my beloved FC Dallas is undeserving of the Shield. FC Dallas is the epitome of what the Supporters' Shield is about, a hard-working team of young American stars, emerging foreign talent, and glue-like veterans who gut through 34 brutal games, all the while traveling thousands of miles, making room for a thankless Open Cup tournament, enduring injuries and locker room drama, and only occasionally getting serious love from national media. FC Dallas knows what having the best record in Major League Soccer took - they deserve the award.
No, the Supporters' Shield deserves better from the league as a whole.
What kind of league lets a major trophy representing the championship standard of every other professional soccer league in the world travel around like checked luggage with its fans?
Arielle Castillo writes about this haphazard process in her Shield piece on MLSSoccer.com:
Last weekend, when it looked like Dallas would clinch, the Shield trophy headed to Portland – and even went missing along the way, thanks to an airlines’ bungling of checked baggage. After the Shield went unawarded, the Timbers Army kindly shipped it to the school where Dallas Beer Guardians supporters' group president Bailey Brown works, ready for her to travel with it in person to L.A.
"I checked it as luggage yesterday and brought it," she said. "I was incredibly worried. There’s video of me picking it up and I kind of did a dance, like, ‘Oh good, it made it!'"
Can Major League Soccer figure out a way to take this concern out of its beloved fans' hands and make sure it gets where it needs to go with care and precision? I know there are likely league concerns about ownership of this trophy. Is it really a Supporters' Shield if it is under corporate control? I get those concerns, but this is the kind of the thing that the league can do to support fans and supporters' groups and insure that these kinds of trophies stay rooted and thriving in our growing soccer culture in North America. Let the fans keep control, but MLS, ship it for them, please.
I am still absolutely stumped by that quote though. If the Shield got lost and ended up halfway across the continent, Major League Soccer would be the one that would deservedly look like an amateur operation. The Shield deserves better.
The biggest reason the Supporters' Shield deserves better is the same old question - MLS Cup vs. the Shield. As long as Major League Soccer insists on tacking on a cash grab playoff system at the end of each season, the Supporters' Shield will be always considered ancillary, almost like a minor trophy, a season bonus, a free burrito after the purchase of ten burritos, or whatever. That is despite the opinion of fans and the league's own players who see the Shield as the ultimate championship and the evidence of what it means to be a real champion - a roster of hard-working players who over the course of a long, brutal season play consistent, winning football.
On the other hand, the MLS Cup and its playoff format make it possible that a lucky blip is all you need to go through to the next stage and win. A ball bouncing off of one unlucky defender. A freak injury. A bad call by a ref. Or whatever. The MLS Cup can be fun, but it isn't the same. (FC Dallas fans still have their lingering nightmares from that 2010 MLS Cup Final when an own goal was the difference for a lackluster Colorado team to take home the glory.)
At the end of the day, the league is going to go where the money is. FC Dallas' 0-0 draw at Los Angeles wasn't exactly the exciting, tense atmosphere of a playoff game. The league wants people to tune in to see goals and fireworks and excitement. The coverage of the Shield win by MLSSoccer.com was quickly buried by the desire to promote and draw in that kind of anticipation for the playoffs. But the league could have and should do better.
My counter argument is that promoting and investing in the Supporters' Shield is better for North American soccer in the long haul. The MLS Cup may bring in extra cash, but the Supporters' Shield helps the whole sport grow, encourages the investment in young homegrown talent, and makes for an exciting, sustainable league overall. You can't win the Supporters' Shield by grabbing a couple of aging veterans from Europe. You need lots of pieces that work together made possible through good drafts, economical signings, the right designated players, a great coaching staff, and thriving academy system. That's something that MLS should be rewarding - not burying in their pursuit of a temporary boost in ratings.
The Supporters' Shield deserves better - because it is better.