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This can be a learning moment for the Supporters’ Shield

After reversing decision on whether or not to award the trophy, the Supporters’ Shield Foundation must now codify a set of rules.

Sounders Win Supporters’ Shield Mike Russell / Sounder at Heart

I’ll be completely honest: When I first heard that the Supporters’ Shield wasn’t going to be given out this year, I thought it was the right decision. I had felt that way since at least late June, when the Casadia Cup was effectively called off. I even said as much at the time.

My thinking was pretty straightforward: This is a trophy created and administered by fans. If they can’t safely participate in it, there’s no compelling reason to award it.

I should note that at the time, we were nearly three months into the pandemic, games had not yet resumed and there was an open question what a season would even look like. Once the season came into focus, however, a new reason emerged not to award the trophy: Extreme competitive imbalance. Not only would teams play wildly different schedules, in recent weeks it became obvious that they wouldn’t even play the same number of games.

For me, this was enough reason to shelve the trophy for a year. That the Supporters’ Shield Foundation wanted to spend 2021 putting the trophy on tour around the league was a nice touch, too.

As more information about the process by which this decision was made came to light — and that the decision was criticized from numerous corners — I must admit that my original position was naive. Correctly, I think the Supporters’ Shield Foundation reversed its decision and announced on Friday that the trophy would still be handed out to whichever team is deemed the most successful in the regular season.

The original decision, I believe, was well meaning and rooted in a belief that supporters have an important role to play in this unique award. But the more I learned about the award itself, I think the decision was a bit misguided. While this has undoubtedly been a rough week for the Supporters’ Shield, I hold out hope that some positive and needed change can come from it.

How the original decision was made

If you want the closest thing to a full picture of the decision-making progress, you should probably check out Mark Kastner’s piece. The TL;DR is this: Back in July the five-person Supporters’ Shield Board decided amongst themselves that they shouldn’t give out the trophy this year for reasons I alluded to at the start of this story. It’s unclear why, but they sat on that decision until October. Once it became obvious that teams weren’t going to be able to play the same number of games, they informed MLS of their decision.

That much seemingly everyone agrees on.

How well the board communicated its decision to members of the Independent Supporters Council — an affiliated, but separate group that has representatives from 25 of 26 MLS teams — is less clear. The board — made up of five members from the ISC — insists they made considerable efforts to notify everyone in the hope of having a united message. Some groups dispute how thorough those efforts were.

Either way, the criticism of the decision came from all fronts. Supporters groups, especially those in contention for the Shield, were particularly vocal. Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney was particularly pointed in his criticism, as was Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. There were certainly some supportive voices, as well as those of people like ESPN’s Herculez Gomez who spoke out against the existence of the trophy in the first place.

Then what happened?

After some attempts to clarify its position, the board ultimately decided that a more formalized process of review needed to be undertaken. Each of the 25 MLS teams represented in the ISC — Orlando City is apparently the only team without representation — were allowed to cast one vote each. On Thursday, it was announced that the Supporters’ Shield would be awarded after all.

It’s impossible to say how such a vote would have turned out if it had been taken back in July when there were still open questions about whether or not there would even be a season. It’s even possible that if the vote had happened before this news became public that supporters would have deemed the season too compromised to justify the award.

But unveiling a wholly undemocratic decision just a few weeks before the season was due to end, and then met with loud public condemnation, it’s not hard to see why the vote broke the way it did.

That leaves Toronto FC back in the driver’s seat to win their second Shield. They’ll visit second-place Philadelphia Union on Saturday in a match that could well decide who wins it.

A brief history lesson

That some team will finish the year hoisting the Supporters’ Shield will likely turn these last few days into a mere footnote in MLS history, that time some supporters got the crazy idea that they’d withhold the regular-season trophy for reasons that will surely be debated for years to come.

We should still treat this as a learning opportunity. In my hope of better understanding the Supporters’ Shield — a trophy that predates the vast majority of today’s MLS fans — I reached out to Sam Pierron, who served as the chairman of the original Supporters’ Shield committee.

The Shield, as you may have heard, was first awarded in 1999, three years after MLS began. Originally, MLS had no interest in crowning a regular-season champion, despite that being the standard in virtually every other league around the world. Even after the advent of the Shield — which was designed, commissioned and paid for by supporters — it was only within the last 10 years that MLS would even display single-table standings on its website.

During those initial discussions around the Shield, how to award it was debated. Keeping in mind that the first time MLS featured a balanced schedule was in 2010 and that 2011 was the only other year that featured a classic double-round robin, various alternatives were discussed. The Shield committee discussed such possibilities as only counting points from the first home and road games each team played against each other, awarding a single point for all shootout results or using goal-difference as a tiebreaker, but in the end decided that the fairest thing to do was to default to however MLS determined the standings.

“That’s what the guys on the field are doing,” Pierron said. “Those are the rules they are playing under, those are the conditions they are playing under. We went with that. We said whatever MLS’s rules are in terms of seeding, that’s what we’ll go with.

“We can voice our discontent with MLS, but for consistency’s sake we’ll do that. I think that’s served them well and I wish that’s what they were doing now.”

To put it bluntly, Pierron did not see the Shield committee as being an arbiter of fairness. Even though supporters are on the field to give it to the winning team and the players then give it back to their supporters to keep throughout the year is part of what makes the trophy unique and special, Pierron did not think their physical presence was necessarily a central element of awarding the Shield.

I would add that there’s a key difference between the Shield and a rivalry trophy like the Cascadia Cup, which I think was rightfully not awarded this year. While one very clearly belongs to fans of three teams, the other has effectively become a league-wide trophy. Yes, a specific group of supporters technically own it, but it now belongs to everyone.

“The Supporters Shield is not about the supporters,” Pierron said. “It’s about the teams and the league. It’s a gift from the supporters, it’s a statement from the supporters and that’s why I would say that the fact that supporters aren’t in the stadiums doesn’t make a difference.”

None of that necessarily means the Shield committee saw themselves as silent partners.

Supporters like Pierron were instrumental in pushing the league to abandon some of its more controversial rules from those early years. They helped convince MLS to abandon the counting-up clock and shootouts, for instance, and over time were successful in helping turn the Shield into a trophy that was a big enough deal that deciding not to award it would elicit emotional responses from fans, players and coaches.

Sean Dane, who served as the first president of the Supporters Shield Foundation from 2013-2018, largely agreed with Pierron in that he did not see applying a qualitative test as being part of the group’s role. That’s especially true in years like this one — or in 2001 when teams were forced to cancel games due to the 9/11 attacks — where outside circumstances are the culprit.

“If, at the beginning of the year, MLS had just changed the rules of competition and created a whole unbalanced and unfair schedule then we as supporters have a duty to speak up and ask for parity,” Dane said. “This is just such a strange year that isn’t anyone’s fault. It does seem needed at this time.

“The players have been fighting as hard as they can in an uncertain time and as supporters we need to stand behind them, lift them up, just as we do normally week in and week out in the stadiums.”

What now?

I’m optimistically choosing to believe that any damage that has been done to the Shield’s longterm viability can be fixed. The first thing that must be done, I believe, is to make sure something like this never happens again. Fans, players and teams should never have to wonder if they’re playing for a trophy or not.

With that as the guiding principle, I’d hope that there’s codified rules around awarding the Shield. I’d suggest that the Supporters’ Shield Board should merely serve as a committee that delivers a recommendation, and leaves the decision to the larger MLS contingent of the Independent Supporters Council. I’d also suggest that any decision should have to be made as early as possible, ideally before matches have been played.

The Supporters’ Shield is a unique trophy in the world of professional sports. Its history is worth celebrating and it would be a shame for MLS to completely take it over. This was a misstep, but I think it can prove to be a useful exercise.