The red-headed step-child of MLS trophies, the Supporters Shield, has never been as meaningful, and probably never will be as meaningful, as it will be this year.
Now that we know the Sounders full "schedule", or, as the proper term may actually be, "fixture list" (since this will be subject to slight changes and corrections during the season) we can begin to digest the task at hand in 2011.
I have already certainly heard and read enough about the MLS Cup already, as the "MLS Cup or bust" mentality I wondered about a couple weeks ago seems to have taken hold of Sounders training camp. Yesterday, an excellent article on AOL Fanhouse pointed out that we still don't know the playoff format - which according to Garber's MLS Cup halftime announcement was due at some point in December.
I don't want to turn this piece into another anti-playoffs screed. There has been plenty written on this site and others about the egregious shortcomings of the MLS playoffs in recent years (a good place to start is a couple of the articles linked to in the Fanhouse piece). It is not that I am anti-playoffs. What I am is pro-regular season, Particularly a regular season as thorough as the MLS's.
The Supporters Shield is basically a 18-team, 34-match, double round-robin, 7-month long marathon to determine the best team in the MLS. It is blessedly free of the schedule imbalances and inconsistencies which pollute other League's regular season competitions. (Yes, there are Conferences, which serve NO purpose to scheduling). We are, in fact, in the short-lived "balanced schedule" era of the MLS, which started in 2009 (When schedules were certainly so close to being balanced as to be passable by my standards) and may end this year. In 2009 and 2010 the competitions were smaller and marginally shorter, with 15, then 16 teams, and 30-match schedules.
It's important to remember that next year we know there will 19 teams, and by 2013 we can be pretty certain there will be 20; and Don Garber has kept the Conferences around for a reason (at least one would assume so). If nothing else they have remained to serve as placeholders for when the MLS returns to a scheduling system based on conferences, and perhaps even subdivides further into divisions. It seems to me that it is highly likely that in the near future the Supporters Shield competition will be obfuscated by the scheduling and competitive imbalances inherent in conference and divisional scheduling which infects the other Leagues.
All this points to 2011 being one of the Glory Years for the Supporters Shield... if not THE glory year.
If I were given the choice of one trophy for my Sounders to win this year, I will take the Shield, hands down. I may be very much in the minority, but I think it is the most meaningful trophy to be won by an MLS team this year.