Who will win the MLS Supporters’ Shield race? Making the case for each contender
As the end of the 2013 MLS regular season comes to a close, I find it hard hard to escape this thought: If any major European league had standings this compressed this late on, headlines would be flying. “A historic finish,” they might call it. Or perhaps “A once-in-a-generation conclusion to a wide-open title race.” Legions would tune in on the final day, hoping to see drama like the conclusion of the 2011-12 Premier League season.
Of course, in MLS the race for best record in the league is an afterthought. And that’s completely okay. The MLS Cup playoffs are where teams’ legacies are made — one of the pleasantly North American things about this competition that helps define it as its own, unique thing and not merely an imitation of leagues across the pond.
By that same token, the Supporters’ Shield is pretty awesome. Created by the league’s supporters groups (a tale told eloquently here), the trophy is awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the MLS regular season, just like a standard league championship in most other places. The unique part comes in who it’s awarded to: the supporters themselves keep the shield. It’s a remarkably organic tradition, and one that comes with a prize for the team that wins it, as well: A spot in the following year’s CONCACAF Champions League.
This year’s race for the Shield is one of the tightest in recent memory, with six sides separated by a mere two points in the overall standings. Here’s a look at those sides and their chances of bringing joy and silverware directly to their most ardent fans:
New York Red Bulls
Remaining schedule: 10/20 at Houston Dynamo, 10/27 vs. Chicago Fire
Why they will win the Shield: They’re in control.
The Red Bulls are playing some of their best soccer of the season at just the right time, reeling off six undefeated games after an embarrassing 3-2 loss to Chivas USA at the end of August. That run has the team atop the standings, so as long as they win out, they’ll capture the club’s first major piece of silverware ever. So, yeah, the motivation is certainly there.
Why they won’t: They haven’t been in control before.
The last four years, the Red Bulls have either been far out of contention for the Shield or more worried about making the playoffs at all as the season came to a close. Now, with a playoff spot locked up and two games to go, the team could be in danger of thinking ahead to the league’s primary prize: MLS Cup.
Remaining schedule: 10/19 vs. Real Salt Lake, 10/26 at Chivas USA
Why they will win the Shield: Confidence.
The Timbers have steadily evolved over the season from an attack-at-all-costs pressure machine to a well-balanced side capable of building a lead and fighting to hold on to it. It speaks volumes that, even as electric playmaker Diego Valeri has struggled with injury, the Timbers have been able to maintain their six-match unbeaten run. And make no mistake, once this side gets going, it’s difficult to stop. Portland rattled off a 15-game unbeaten run earlier this year.
Why they wont: Too many ties.
As of today. the Timbers may have just as many points as the first-placed Red Bulls, but they still sit in second. Why is that? Simple: victories. The first tiebreaker for playoff positioning in MLS is total wins, and Portland has 13 of those to New York’s 15. In fact, Portland is the only team of the top six candidates covered here to have a total that low (every other team has exactly 15 wins). It’d be impossible for coach Caleb Porter’s side to make up the wins gap without winning the Shield outright on points, so if they’re going to bring the Shield to the Timbers Army they’ll need to do it the old-fashioned way, with no tiebreakers needed. To do that, they’ll need to win out and hope New York slips up.
Real Salt Lake
Remaining schedule: 10/19 at Portland Timbers, 10/23 vs. Chivas USA
Why they will win the Shield: They’re stone-cold pros.
In the course of his tenure as head coach, Jason Kreis has molded Salt Lake into a tough side that grinds out results over the course of a season. They have perhaps the toughest matchup of any of the top six sides coming up when they travel to Portland, but if any team can handle the pressure, it’s RSL. It helps that forward Alvaro Saborio has been playing well, scoring in RSL’s previous game against Dallas and for Costa Rica against Mexico in World Cup qualifying.
Why they won’t: Scheduling.
Yes, there’s that game against the Timbers at Jeld-Wen, mentioned previously. That alone makes the task of securing the Shield difficult. But RSL’s final game, against Chivas USA, presents another roadblock. Not because of the opponent — RSL should roll over the awful Chivas — but because of the timing. That match happens the Wednesday before the weekend where the league wraps up its regular season business. That means that even if RSL wins out, every other Shield contender will know exactly what they have to do to leapfrog them.