Shield bearers

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The Crew still has a long road to the MLS Cup ahead of them, but in most world soccer leagues, they would already be champions.

With a tie Sunday in Chicago, Columbus clinched the Supporters' Shield, the award for the best regular-season record in Major League Soccer. This is the second shield win in club history, and the first since 2004.

Most soccer leagues award their crown to the regular-season champion -- the winner of the marathon, not the sprint. But since its inception in 1996, MLS has always had playoffs.

"We are an American sports league, and this is, to a certain degree, just the way things are done," said Shield creator Sam Pierron, a Kansas City Wizards fan from day one who now works for his favorite club.

Still, from the beginning some MLS devotees wanted to acknowledge the achievement of finishing first in the regular season. So as early as 1997, plans were hatched to create such an award.

A fan of the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny popularized the idea of a trophy created and shepherded by the fans. The anonymous Tampa backer balked when other fans rejected his scoring system, which ignored the tie-breaking shootout MLS used at the time, and his proposed name for the trophy, the Scudetto (after the Italian league champion at that time).

When that guy flaked out, Pierron stepped in to make the majority's dreams a reality.

"[Pierron] kind of picked up the ball and by sheer force of will got it started," said Matt Bernhardt, who was heavily involved in Crew supporters' clubs in the '90s.

Pierron solicited donations from Bernhardt and other soccer zealots around the country, including a $500 contribution from ESPN play-by-play announcer Phil Schoen. Then he approached an art student in nearby Lawrence to design the trophy, which looks kind of like a Pontiac logo.

By 1998, Pierron was presenting the Supporters' Shield to fans of the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Supporters' Summit on MLS Cup weekend.

What began as a grassroots movement has gained currency with the powers that be. The Shield is now recognized as an official MLS award, and its winner gets automatic entry to prestigious tournaments of the international (CONCACAF Champions League) and domestic (U.S. Open Cup) variety.

"It's one of the three legs of the Domestic Treble," Pierron said, referring to a trio of prominent American soccer trophies that also includes the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup.

Pierron is interested in raising funds to build a newer, better version of the Shield. But the Crew and its supporters will gladly accept the current model.

In addition to the traditional ceremony at the Supporters' Summit, the Crew will present the Shield to the rowdy fans of the Nordecke during the final regular-season home match Oct. 26, club spokesman Dave Stephany said.

What's next for the Crew?

Columbus wraps up its road schedule Saturday against potential playoff opponent the New York Red Bulls on Giants Stadium's rock-hard artificial turf. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. on ONN.