Written by: JP Lococo (@jp_lococo)
Edited by: Curt Ashcraft (@cashcraft740)
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As the Major League Soccer season finishes up the month of July, the race for the Supporters' Shield is beginning to heat up. For those who are unfamiliar with the Supporters' Shield, it is an annual award given to the Major League Soccer team with the best regular season record, as determined by the MLS points system. In addition to being a major trophy in MLS, the winner receives an automatic bid to the CONCACAF Champions League.
Tied with the most Supporters' Shields are the Los Angeles Galaxy and DC United. The Columbus Crew are in third with three awards won. With close to 14 matches remaining for each team in the 2013 campaign, lets take a look at whose now in position for a run at the Supporters' Shield, and most importantly, what each team will need to do to take home the award.
Real Salt Lake: If the season ended today, Real Salt Lake would win the award according to the current point standings. After 21 matches played, they are the only team with 11 wins and a league best 37 points.
A mediocre start to the year left Real a bit under the radar. The sluggish play did not last long after the return of Argentinean, Javier Morales. The MVP candidate is back healthy after ankle surgery in the off-season and is finding form again. In the last seven matches, Morales has contributed three goals and five assist.
How will Real Salt Lake win the Supporters' Shield? They will if they continue to stay the course. Manager Jason Kris has them well coached and ready for the final stretch. Like I mentioned, when Morales is healthy, he is one of the top play-makers in MLS and that shouldn't change. Lets not forget Kyle Beckerman has also been away with the US Men's National Team on Gold Cup duty. Beckerman returning after the weekend should only help create more space for youngster Joao Plata to create when attacking and speedster Robbie Findley on the wing. My only concern for RSL moving forward is they have a brutal schedule down the stretch that could trip them up a bit.
Sporting Kansas City: KC sit only one point behind Real Salt Lake in the Supporters' Shield race after stealing three points in a hard-fought game at Rio Tinto Stadium against RSL this past weekend. There is no love lost between these two clubs, which is surprising for how little they have played against one another. Only seconds into the match, RSL defender Chris Wingert plowed into Kei Kamara, who spent some time with Norwich last season, as a ball floated toward both players. Wingert would be cautioned for the second time in the second half and would be tossed out. Due to all the stoppages during regulation play, the head referee let both teams play into the 97th minute, which became a controversial decision. Sporting KC defender Ike Opara took advantage of the added time and found the back of the net through a clogged up box to take three points back to Kansas City.
With the win last weekend at Salt Lake, Sporting have now won three matches in a row and have extended their unbeaten streak to six. This is a scary thought considering top players Graham Zusi and Matt Besler have both been absent recently due to international call-ups. With the US Men’s National Team close to clinching a spot to Brazil next year, Jurgan Klinsmann will be calling up one, if not both players again to help them gain more experience internationally as qualifying finishes up which could be a concern for Sporting fans.
If RSL slips up at all in the last couple weeks of the season, then I believe Kansas City will win the Supporters' Shield. If you look at the standings I provided you earlier, four of the top five teams in the race for the award now are in the Western Conference. Sporting still has match-ups against struggling teams in the East such as Chicago, Columbus, Toronto and DC. Of the four teams I just listed, only Chicago and Columbus are still even fighting for a playoff spot.
RSL’s schedule on the other hand worries me. They have to play a much improved Portland Timbers team four times in the last three months. Yes, four times. One of the games will be a U.S. Open Cup match which doesn't count toward the MLS regular season. For those who don't know, the U.S. Open Cup is equivalent of the FA Cup in England. If Sporting can stay healthy and take care of lighter matches in the East, I see them as being one of the last two teams, if not the winners, contending for the Shield in late October.
Portland Timbers/LA Galaxy: I have joined these last two clubs into the final grouping for a couple of reasons. The first being a drop-off of contenders for the award after these two teams in the standings. After Portland and LA is Vancouver sitting in an impressive fifth. I say impressive because Vancouver is one of those teams coming into this year that no one thought would be in contention for the best regular season record in Major League Soccer and I think they will slide. Yes, they have a young, talented squad and they even have MLS’s goals leader this season in Camilo Sanvezzo. But the Whitecaps have also given up the third most amount of goals in the West, and that won’t get it done.
The second reason I have Portland and LA grouped together is because I think both teams have enough to either make a push for the number one seed in the West, or if not, at least hold their place. With the support the Timbers get from their home crowd, they should continue to play well enough at home to stay in this race. First year head coach Caleb Porter has done extremely well managing this team and won’t let them slide.
The reason’s the Galaxy will contend for this year’s Supporters' Shield is simple. They have Irish International Robby Keane, a growing star in US International defender Omar Gonzales and an US Men’s National Team legend in Landon Donovan. It seems that Donovan has rediscovered his love for the game as he has torched the Gold Cup field and his form should carry over into MLS play. My one concern here, like with SKC, is that Donovan will most likely be called up with Gonzales to help the USA qualify for the World Cup in September. Will Keane and company have enough to stay in the race until the other return? Only time will tell.
We are now entering crunch time in the MLS schedule. Who do you think will come away with the Supporters' Shield this year? Leave your thoughts below!