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The Lowdown: Someone tell us, how much should we care about the NWSL Shield?

The Courage and coach Paul Riley have NWSL fans pondering the importance of the Shield )Photo by Lewis Gettier)

The North Carolina Couarge were about 15 minutes away from securing the first trophy on offer since the club was sold and relocated from Western New York in January. And then a mistake in the box allowed Sky Blue to level Saturday’s match 1-1. It finished that way, leaving the Courage two points short of what they need to wrap up the NWSL’s regular season Shield. They’ll get another chance on Wednesday against the Dash, and there will be more opportunities on the weekend if they need them.

It sounds like a great plot line to help finish off an NWSL season in which all four playoff teams and both semifinal sites are set heading into the final week. But as it turns out, the Courage don’t seem to care.

Courage coach Paul Riley observed his team as it struggled through warm-ups on Sunday, and said, “I said it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what happens. October 8 is what matters. That’s all we have to look forward to is October 8.”

The twice referenced date is when the Courage will host either the Pride or Red Stars in the semifinals at Sahlen’s Stadium. The winner will move on to the NWSL Championship, October 14 in Orlando. That the final is in Orlando underscores Riley’s point of view on putting the finishing touches on the Shield. Moving the title match to a predetermined site in 2015 was an almost universally positive move. One negative though, is that it essentially eliminated any distinction between the Shield winner and runner-up in terms of the playoffs. Depending on semifinal matchups, finishing second could even be considered an advantage for some teams.

“I don’t care about winning games if we don’t have to,” Riley added, doubling down on his indifference regarding the league’s regular season honor. “It’s just about the performance and getting better before October 8.”

On the other side, Sky Blue expressed little interest in having prevented the Courage from winning the trophy on their home ground, something the Thorns did at Yurcak Field in 2016.

“It feels better that they didn’t win it here and aren’t celebrating but we didn’t make the (playoffs) so there’s no satisfaction in anything right now,” Golden Boot leader Sam Kerr said. Game day coach Dave Hodgson was equally dismissive.

In a large majority of soccer leagues around the globe, there are no playoffs, and so the “regular” season is it. Debate has raged for more than two decades of Major League Soccer as to the validity of that league’s Supporters Shield vs MLS Cup playoff championship. When the New York Red Bulls played in the US Open Cup final last week their head coach Jesse Marsch said they team was playing for its first major trophy even though he was the coach for the second of its two Supporters Shields.

Major League Soccer also offers two carrots to its Shield winner, one of which NWSL can’t and one which NWSL doesn’t. The MLS Shield winner qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League, a level of club soccer that does not yet exist for women in North America. MLS also awards its Shield winner with extra allocation money. NWSL does not specifically give out allocation money but could increase cap space, international roster spots, or work in tandem with U.S. Soccer on some sort of creative financial incentive.

“We’re going to continue to evaluate that on an annual basis for ways that we can incentivize for players and organizations,” Amanda Duffy, NWSL Managing Director of Operations, said. “We’re always going to have those conversations and be open minded to ways and ideas that are able to increase the value to any of our awards.”

Duffy did not directly answer in regards to financial incentives for winning the Shield. She did though, stress that it is an important element of the league season.

“For the league it’s important. That’s why we recognize the NWSL regular season with the Shield. For us the Shield is important and we will continue to recognize the teams that outperform all the others through the body of the season and reward them in the way that we’re able to right now as the highest seed through the playoffs.”

If the Courage slip up—they need 2 points out of their last two matches—the only team left that can catch them is the Thorns. The 2016 winners need win a over the Red Stars on Saturday and for the Courage to take no more than 1 point off the Dash (Wednesday) and Pride (Saturday.) A year ago the Thorns ran down the Spirit to take the Shield on the final weekend and engaged in a mild but tepid celebration. A week later the Western New York Flash (now Courage) broke their hearts in the semifinal.

“I don’t agree the Shield isn’t important,” a Thorns representative told The Equalizer. “Especially in a 10-team league with only two semifinals it’s very much something the Thorns care about. But is it as important as NWSL Championship? No.”

The Spirit, who were seconds away from the NWSL Championship only to lose on penalties, tipped their hand as to the importance of each trophy when they started Crystal Dunn and Christine Nairn on the bench during a September 11 trip to Seattle that resulted in a 2-0 loss.

When the Thorns won their Shield, no league representative was on hand to present it. The club then acted on the notion of NWSL Championship taking priority by declining the hardware ahead of their semifinal. They were eventually presented their Shield officially during the 2017 home opener.

Duffy plans to be in North Carolina on Saturday but there was no league representative in New Jersey in case the Courage won nor will there be anyone in Edinburg on Wednesday night.

As for Riley and the Courage, he wasn’t tipping his hand at what the team might look like against the Dash, refusing even to comment on whether he will allow Abby Dahlkemper to continue her consecutive minutes streak that dates to May 2015. One thing he did say was that the plan was in place ahead of the Sky Blue match meaning Shield or no Shield, all eyes are on October 8.

“We had our plan from the beginning of the week and we’re going to stick to that plan no matter what the score was tonight,” Riley said. “We’ll make some changes Wednesday night, get some rest and we’ll do what we need to do Saturday. Our heads are in October 8. We have a long-term plan. If we get the points we get them. If we don’t we don’t.”

And so I ask…if the players and coaches don’t think of the Shield as a big deal, how are we the fans supposed to throw our emotional support behind it?

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