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 target="_blank">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.
Sporting Kansas City
Remaining schedule: 10/18 vs. D.C. United, 10/26 at Philadelphia Union
Why they will win the Shield: Defense and depth.
Kansas City has the top defense in the entire league, giving up less than one goal per game on average and only two in its last five matches -- a period where it played long stretches without U.S. national team center back Matt Besler. Luckily for Sporting KC, the team has enough depth to deal with absences, injures and fatigue with players like Ike Opara becoming key role players. Kansas City will need every bit of that depth. In between its final two MLS games, it must play a CONCACAF Champions League match against Honduras' CD Olimpia at Sporting Park.
Why they won't: Goals.
For as good as Kansas City's defensive record is, this team has been struggling to score. Kansas City has netted the second-least number of goals (44) among the top six, and it'll be without Kei Kamara -- a key contributor to that total who was sold to Middlesbrough of the English Championship at the start of September. C.J. Sapong has attempted to fill Kamara's void, but the results have been mixed, and top scorer Claudio Bieler has been an unused sub in five of Kansas City's last seven games as he's struggled with a groin injury.
Remaining MLS schedule: 10/20 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 10/27 at Seattle Sounders
Why they will win the Shield: Experience.
The Galaxy captured the Shield two of the past three seasons, so Bruce Arena and Co. know how to end the season on top. Plus, though injures could limit time on the field and effectiveness for Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez, striker Robbie Keane is still healthy and raring to go. In a cameo appearance in the Galaxy's 1-0 win over Montreal Impact on Wednesday, Keane brought new life to a Galaxy team filled with youngsters. Not bad, considering he had just played a World Cup qualifier halfway around the world a mere 24 hours earlier.
Why they won't: Health.
In Donovan and Gonzalez, the Galaxy have two of their leaders hobbled with injures. Donovan has been dealing with an ankle issue for the past month and has only played sparingly for the Galaxy and the U.S. national team in the interim. The injury reportedly took a turn for the worse in the U.S.'s draw with Jamaica on Friday, and Donovan sat out the Galaxy's win over the Impact. Gonzalez remains hobbled by a hip injury that has been bothering the big defender all year -- he also sat out the Montreal game. Arena always manages to get the best out of the players at his disposal, but storming back to capture the Shield with limited contributions from Gonzalez and Donovan would rank among his most impressive coaching feats.
Remaining MLS schedule: 10/19 at FC Dallas, 10/27 vs. LA Galaxy
Why they will win the Shield: They have the final word.
There is of course no telling how the last two matches will go for any of these teams. The good news for the Sounders is that they won't have to rely on anybody except themselves. The Sounders' last game of the season is also the last regular season game in the entire league, meaning they'll know exactly what they need to do going into it. Moreover, it's in front a home crowd that will surely be as raucous as ever if the Sounders are still in the hunt for the Shield at that point. The fact that the game is against fellow Shield hunters Los Angeles could increase the stakes mightily.
Why they won't: Form.
There's no nice way to put it: Seattle has been absolutely dreadful the past three games. After steamrolling through August and September with an 8-1-2 record, things got Halloween scary for Seattle in October. A 5-1 away loss to Colorado was followed by a 4-1 rout at home at the hands of the Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps. The kicker came last weekend in a 1-0 loss to the Portland Timbers that saw midfield destroyer Osvaldo Alonso sent off, meaning he will be out for the Sounders' next match against FC Dallas. This team is as talented as any in MLS, but they seem to be coming apart at the seams at exactly the wrong time -- not a good recipe for much of anything, let alone the Supporters Shield.
Also in the hunt (mathematically speaking):
Remaining MLS schedule: 10/19 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps, 10/27 at Vancouver Whitecaps
Remaining MLS schedule: 10/20 vs. New York Red Bulls, 10/27 at D.C. United
San Jose Earthquakes
Remaining MLS schedule: 10/20 at LA Galaxy, 10/26 vs. FC Dallas STRAUS: MLS schedule switch could create as many problems as it solves