MLS Cup is the ultimate prize, so there are those that believe the Supporters’ Shield is insignificant. That it is a trophy that is nice to add to your collection, but that is not all that important in the grand scheme of things. Then there are those who see true value in it, who recognize that winning it reflects and rewards a year’s worth of hard work.
Count Jesse Marsch and Oscar Pareja, leaders of clubs hungry for silverware, among that second group.
MLS is going to have some end-of-season drama this weekend that just might resemble what is seen across Europe, as both the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas compete for the regular-season crown separately but simultaneously. The two clubs with identical 17-10-6 records will play their season finales at 7 pm ET on Sunday against different opponents in different cities, but with a close eye on one another.
New York will visit the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park at the same time Dallas hosts the San Jose Earthquakes at Toyota Stadium thanks to a late scheduling change by MLS, and that should make for some high-intensity drama and excitement between two teams that are not taking this opportunity for granted.
“It’s a significant trophy because it exemplifies the job of the entire year,” FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja told SBI. “Obviously, the MLS Cup comes after the playoffs, but the sixth-placed team can win it and the first-placed team can go out in the first round. The Supporters’ Shield says a lot about the job you’ve done over the course of the year, so for me it seems to be very relevant.”
“As the years have gone on, the Supporters’ Shield has gained a lot of importance and momentum,” Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch told SBI. “Partly because of what it means for the fans and what it means to acknowledge the team that’s had the best regular season. There’s definite value to it. We’re excited to have the opportunity to step on the field, and go after it.”
While the Red Bulls and FC Dallas are keen to add silverware to trophy cabinets that are largely devoid of significant cups and shields, both clubs are taking a pragmatic approach to this final round of regular-season action. There have been no real changes to the preparations for this weekend’s matches despite what is at stake, and the focus for each of the conference winners lies mostly in what they can control.
Marsch and New York know that a victory over already-eliminated Chicago will win them the Supporters’ Shield given the goal differential advantage they have over Dallas, while Pareja and his men are solely looking to top playoff-hopeful San Jose and seeing where the chips fall after that. There will of course be score-checking, especially as the games enter the latter stages, but neither team is planning to overly concern itself with what goes on elsewhere.
Who has the advantage, though? Some might point to FC Dallas because it is playing inside the friendly confines of Toyota Stadium while New York is on the road, and others would say the Red Bulls due to the fact that they are facing a struggling club with little to play for while Dallas takes on a team fighting for a postseason berth.
As far as Pareja is concerned, neither side has the upperhand. Marsch does not agree, however.
“I think we have the advantage just because it’s in our hands,” said Marsch. “Dallas could get a win and still not get the Shield. I think it’s in our advantage, but that doesn’t mean anything. When things are on the line, it’s never easy. It’s going to come down to our ability to handle the moment and perform on the day. If we do that, then we can walk away with the shield and if we don’t then we’re in jeopardy of not.”
For the Red Bulls, winning the Supporters’ Shield would put an exclamation point on a regular-season campaign that few predicted when 2015 began. New York replaced stars Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill in the offseason with a group of blue-collared players and the controversial firing of popular manager Mike Petke set off alarm bells throughout the Big Apple, leaving many to believe that this would be a rebuilding year for the club.
It has been anything but that. The Red Bulls have impressed throughout the year with their high-pressing style under Marsch, and their newfound philosophy of not overly relying on one or two players has paid dividends. It is why many see the club as a legitimate contender for MLS Cup, and why New York is on the brink of adding a second Supporters’ Shield in three years to its mostly-bare cabinet.
“I think it would mean that we’re ahead of schedule,” said Marsch of winning another Supporters’ Shield. “(Sporting director Ali Curtis), (general manager) Marc De Grandpre, and I have worked tirelessly to put a process and a plan in place, one that we think can be successful for years to come and be a championship team and club for years to come.
“To achieve that kind of success in the first year means that we’re ahead of schedule, but it’s not going to change anything in our approach to how we do things, to how we operate, to how our teams play, to how our players are committed. It’s an important moment, but it’s one in the start of many.”
FC Dallas has continued its rise to prominence under Pareja, making major strides in playing attractive soccer and winning in his first year as Dallas head coach in 2014. Fabian Castillo has proven to be one of the most dynamic players in MLS, Matt Hedges continues to quietly excel at the back, and even youngsters like Kellyn Acosta have come into their own and delivered key goals and plays.
The only trophy of real significance that FC Dallas has is the U.S. Open Cup it won back in 1997. The club enjoyed success en route to making it to the MLS Cup final in 2010, but almost two decades have passed by without the club claiming some hardware. That’s reason alone for Dallas to want to claim the Supporters’ Shield, but continuing to grow as a team by winning some hardware is something else Pareja is hoping to achieve this weekend.
“We’ve been the best in the conference up to this point in the year, and no one can take that away from us,” said Pareja. “Now, if we become champions of the regular season, that if after 34 games we are the best, then that’s another step forward. It’s very significant for the club.”
Regardless of who comes out on top this weekend, both clubs know that a quick turnaround will be needed since the MLS playoffs begin just days later. There can be no prolonged celebration or lingering hangover, not if they are to accomplish bigger things in the postseason.
Sunday will still prove to be very special for one of the Red Bulls or FC Dallas, and they both like their chances.
“Look, I’m always optimistic. I always think soccer rewards you for your effort, and this team has worked very hard this year,” said Pareja. “I’m completely convinced that if we do our job this weekend we will win the Supporters’ Shield, because I also have confidence in Chicago.”
“We’ve got to step on the field, and we’ve got to perform,” said Marsch. “I believe we have the group to do that, and I’m excited for this opportunity on Sunday and our guys are going to step on the field and give it everything they have like they do every night. At the end of it, I think it will be enough, but we’ll see on Sunday.”