The 'Other' Football....

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

MLS Supporter's Shield - Untold Potential

Written By : Alan Clark, Wednesday September 28, 2005

The MLS Supporter's Shield. It's something of an enigma in American's a break from the traditional, in an American sense, and a tip of the cap to the 'footballing' traditions of the rest of the world. The Supporter's Shield is awarded to the MLS team with the best regular season record, regardless of conference, essentially as if there were a single table format.

Inaugurated a couple of years after the commencement of MLS after the fans demanded a trophy in lieu of the regular season champ - think of it as a compromise for soccer traditionalists - whilst the MLS Cup, a playoff format tournament, remains the defacto championship of Division 1 Pro Soccer in the United States.

Now, ten years in, and with two rounds of expansion, one of contraction, and a move away from many of the gimmicks first associated with MLS (though KC still insist on playing music during games), many fans and pundits alike have started to look for a solution to the problem of lackluster regular season games. The MLS fan has had their appetite whetted by continental tournaments - recently DC were the first MLS team to compete in a CONMEBOL tournament...and the pursuit of a Copa Liberatadores place remains one of MLS's highest priorities. Add in the CONCACAF Champions Cup and with so many teams qualifying for the playoffs (8, out of 12 in 2005 - up from 8 of 10 in 2004), and without the motivating factor of relegation, the late summer months, and early fall can often be a stale representation of the 'great game'. Add in numerous international call-ups, and oppressive heat and the gameplay is the obvious loser. Well, and the fan who is paying to watch it.

So what can be done to help motivate teams to push hard, year long? It's obvious that seeding placement isn't working. The teams who are fighting for their playoff lives have incentive enough, so that leaves the top teams...many of which are in cruise control once August comes round. How can we motivate those teams, assured of a playoff spot, to go for the proverbial jugular each and every game in the closing weeks of the season? How? By making the Supporter's Shield actually mean something.

Right now, the Supporter's Shield has no real prestige. This is probably in no small part because it was something of an after thought, but it has no monetary, nor competition benefit. It is bragging rights alone, and with the current culture of MLS, this doesn't amount to much. In fact, last year's Supporter's Shield winning Coach, Greg Andruilis, was fired a couple of months ago. Not much of a reward is it?

My proposition would change this, to make the Supporter's Shield warrant respect from all the teams. To make it a prized trophy, sought after by players, fans and GM's alike. In the absence of the monetary compensation, we need to look to an alternative means of motivation.

I believe that the solution would be to award the Supporter's Shield winner the place in the Copa Sudamericana. It is a prestigious tournament, although relatively young, and offers a chance to brand both the winning club and MLS abroad - a big responsibility. Under our present system, the winner of MLS Cup takes home the trophy, and earns a place in both the Copa Sudamericana and the CONCACAF Champion's Cup (which in itself offers the chance of a place in the World Club Championships). Surely this is excessive and some of the spoils should be spread around? We already devalue the US Open Cup by not rewarding it's winner with a place in a continental tournament (and this is a topic all by itself), let us not pass up the opportunity to spice up the regular season and reward those loyal fans who endure depleted rosters and the blazing sun to cheer their team towards a meaningful reward.

The Copa Sudamericana is very much flavor of the month, DC gave a reasonable account of itself this year and I think all the teams can see the benefit to participating in such a tournament. The CONCACAF Champion's Cup does not carry the weight, prestige not financial spoils of its more illustrious European cousin. CONMEBOL tournaments are the key to establishing MLS club sides in this region.

This change would be simple to implement and without cost. As long as it was announced before the 2006 season, there is no reason why this couldn't go 'live' next year. All the teams would have equal chance of winning, and all would be motivated by the fact that they know one single team would not reap all the benefits. I think this is especially important now the Champion's Cup has reduced it's format and now only 2 MLS teams are represented, as opposed to the 4 previous.

MLS has proven it can adapt and change over the past ten years, it's time to ring in the next step of it's evolution.


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