The history and the very existence of the MLS Supporters’ Shield reflects, in many ways, the relationships between the league’s supporters and its players, clubs, and culture – to say nothing of the league itself. It stands unique in the world’s game, and in American sport. As we celebrate the creation of a new Shield, I have been asked to provide some historical insight as to the Shield’s origins. I accept, happily.
The Supporters’ Shield had its origins in the North American Soccer mailing list, as did so many components of American soccer supporters’ culture in the mid-90s. For those who weren’t a part of it, it was indeed special. A large, sprawling list of nothing but emails back and forth among a few thousand subscribers that maintained a higher level of discourse than any forum for the discussion of the game in this country than any medium of any sort that existed before or since. Really, I’m not exaggerating.
A Tampa Bay Mutiny supporter named Nick Lawrus brought an idea to NAS in 1997 that resonated with a lot of folks immediately: an award for the winner of the regular season, created and donated by the supporters. He proposed calling it the Supporters’ Scudetto, so named after the trophy given to the winner of Italy’s Serie A. “Scudetto”, by the way, is Italian for “little shield”, and is informally used to refer to a team’s badge or crest (or even “logo”, if you’re so inclined). I can only presume that he was inspired by the Mutiny’s regular season “championship” in 1996 that had been overshadowed by a tepid MLS Cup playoff performance.
There was wide-ranging acceptance of the general concept, and a committee was formed to investigate further: one representative from each club’s supporters, plus Nick himself. I was chosen from among that group to head the committee. Nick had a very particular vision as to the trophy’s definition – he had a sculptor picked out (a local, originally from Italy), he wanted the name “Scudetto”, and he insisted that the results ignore the system used in MLS at that time, the shootout used to decide the result of matches tied at the end of 90 minutes.
Every member of the committee was against MLS’s use of the shootout, and against the MLS clock, which counted down and ended at 0:00 exactly, as is still (shockingly) done in college soccer. However, the committee’s voice was equally united in preferring “Shield” over “Scudetto”. The vast majority of members were in favor of using MLS rules for determining the winner, while aiming to make it clear that we were opposed to the shootout. Nick had a particular vision, and when those who would be required to do the fundraising on the local level didn’t share that vision, he declined to continue participation, and enthusiasm waned.
A few months passed, and early in the 1998 season, I decided to give it another try. We got the rest of the committee together again online. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what it was that got it kickstarted again, but this time, we made it happen. The early goals were very modest, investigating use of an off-the-shelf trophy. We began soliciting donations, and an early donation changed the course of the project.
Most of you know the voice of Phil Schoen, who has been Ray Hudson’s partner for many years, first on GolTV and now on BeIN Sport. In the league’s first few years, Phil was the play-by-play broadcaster for ESPN’s MLS broadcasts, alongside Ty Keough. Phil had been a member of the NAS list before getting the job, and was uniquely in tune with the supporters culture. He was, basically, “one of us.” I knew Phil from online, and we had met for beers at post-game parties, so I wasn’t surprised when he asked to meet before a nationally-televised game in KC so he could make a donation. What surprised me was that he handed me a check for $500, which represented double the amount that had been raised to that point – a game-changer. Instantly, I realized that we could indeed begin to pursue a custom-made trophy. The next time you hear Phil’s voice on a broadcast, think of him fondly. Maybe even send him a tweet of thanks.
Fortuitously, as MLS Cup approached, Michael Breton from LA wanted to take what had been done amongst supporters at the prior MLS Cups and expand upon it. In Boston in ‘96, it had been a little gathering in the North End. In DC in ‘97, it was a really fun, much bigger party. Mike took his union leadership skills and made it into a real force for collective action by organizing the first MLS Supporters’ Summit. League bigwigs were invited (and accepted the invitation) to come and field questions from the supporters. Meetings were held beforehand so we could get our ducks in a row and hone in on major issues to bring up. It was at that Summit that, on behalf of the supporters, I presented the drawings for the Shield as well as our vision for the award. The Shield was our gift to the league, with the understanding that while we saw the flaws, and weren’t going to let them get in the way of our support, we wanted change to ensure that the game that we loved looked like the game we loved everywhere else.
More funds came in that day, including a substantial personal donation from Commissioner Doug Logan, to say nothing of both individual contributions and donations collected by supporters’ clubs. By the end of that round, we had enough money to begin building the Shield for the future.
That said, it wasn’t a whole lot of money for what we wanted to do. I found a student at the University of Kansas (where I was a student at the time) whose work I liked at a local art fair, and worked through what we would need. We got it built – it probably should have been a slightly wider gauge of silver – but it got built. It was completed in time to present to the Galaxy early in the 1999 season, to commemorate their 1998 Shield championship. The previous two winners, Tampa Bay and DC, were represented on the trophy from the very beginning. From the 1999 Supporters’ Summit onward, the Shield was symbolically (and physically) passed from one team’s supporters’ club representatives to the new winners.
There were hiccups, most notably when the Miami Fusion won in 2001, took the Shield home, and then promptly “held the Shield ransom” in protest of their team’s dissolution. They claimed to have put it in a vault in the Caymans, but it made its way back in time to be presented the next year.
It became evident that a new Shield was required. The League had changed, recognizing its supporters in a major way, and the Shield along with it. Supporters’ culture had come to dominate marketing, and many supporters’ sections, which had been numbering in the low hundreds in early years (if you were really, really lucky, it was hundreds rather than dozens) were now in the thousands for any given game. At the 2009 Summit, I opined that it was time for a new Shield, but there just wasn’t the required organization to make it happen. A new Shield had to represent a next step for MLS supporters, not just an ad hoc fundraising effort.
TFC supporters (most notably Connie Zimmer) took the initiative in contacting a local trophy builder and trying to make plans in advance of the Summit that was to be held there in 2010. I met with Connie, an artist, and a metalsmith in Toronto in 2010 while traveling to every Wizards away match that year. While the requisite supporters’ infrastructure wouldn’t fall into place for a while longer yet, the new Shield was designed by that artist (Kyle Stewart) and crafted by that metalsmith (Frank Bordieri and his firm, (Awardco).
By the time of the 2011 Summit, and the meetings a few months later in Portland, the Independent Supporters Council proved itself up to the challenge. Quite deliberately, I know very little about these machinations, and I leave it to others to tell those stories. I took a custodian’s view of creating a new Shield, but once the time truly was right, the efforts themselves had to come from a new generation of supporters, to reflect their work and their vision for collective action.
As it ever was, the Supporters’ Shield is a unique and wonderful statement about MLS supporters, their connection to the game in this country, their symbiotic relationship with both their teams and the league, and to the game worldwide. The new Shield is an evolutionary step that signifies the ever-larger place that the supporters’ culture plays in the American game, and in MLS in particular. From a design standpoint, it has a nod to the old design at its heart, while making it new and grand around that core.
Perhaps most of all, the Shield (be it the old one or the new one) is a statement that supporters, making their voices heard by organizing and uniting around a common cause, can affect change and impact their environment in a way that no single club could standing alone, nor any individual supporter could without hundreds of voices joined in unison. May you all enjoy the Shield when it visits your city, and may Sporting KC win it every season going forward.