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Is the Heritage Cup becoming irrelevant?

James Riley of the Seattle Sounders FC and Ryan Johnson of the San Jose Earthquakes resume their battle for the Heritage Cup this weekend at Buck Shaw Stadium.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
James Riley of the Seattle Sounders FC and Ryan Johnson of the San Jose Earthquakes resume their battle for the Heritage Cup this weekend at Buck Shaw Stadium. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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With the Seattle Sounders coming to Buck Shaw this weekend to face the San Jose Earthquakes, more than just the match at hand and the chance to earn valuable points in the MLS standings will be at stake. Yes, I’m talking about the supporters group driven competition, the Heritage Cup. Contested annually during the MLS regular season by teams that share their moniker with their NASL predecessor clubs, the Heritage Cup competition is intended to celebrate those teams that create strong ties to their cities’ soccer pasts.

In this week’s CenterLine Report column on the Earthquakes official website, I delve a bit deeper into the short but lively history of the competition between the Sounders and the Earthquakes. However, due to some limitations on the length of the article as well as the content therein, I wanted to go further into the discussion of the Heritage Cup and of other supporters groups derived trophies throughout MLS. I also think is it fair to ask whether these friendly competitions really matter beyond the most passionate of supporters and are viewed as worthwhile by the majority of fans involved.

First off, my thoughts on the Heritage Cup are mixed. From the granddaddy of all supporters trophies — the Supporters’ Shield competition open to all the league — down to the Trillium Cup’s one-sided results in favor of the Columbus Crew, these added pieces of silverware bring incentive to the hardcore fans to cheer on their teams that much more in hope that they’ll earn bragging rights over rival fans. Sometimes there isn’t even a trophy involved, take the California Clasico between the Earthquakes and the L.A. Galaxy, but the title itself is enough to invoke when taunting members of the opposing team’s supporters groups. Don’t think for a second that I haven’t invoked the Quakes’ “win” in that competition from last season when chatting with my Galaxy-loving friends down in SoCal.

However, the Heritage Cup seems in danger of becoming irrelevant in just its third year of existence. What is in essence is a competition that should include the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps this season, sees only the Sounders and Earthquakes participating. The behind-the-scenes murmurs regarding the Timbers and Whitecaps reluctance to enter the competition now that they are in MLS and therefore eligible gravitate toward feelings more of disappointment and resignation that the Heritage Cup won’t grow in 2011 as expected. The initial flat-out refusals from the two new clubs’ supporters groups has led to some scrambling to overhaul the nature of the competition, but such changes will have to wait until next season.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room on this matter is clearly the preexistence of the Cascadia Cup for the three teams in the Pacific Northwest. A competition based on geographical rivalries — and predating any promotion of the clubs to MLS — carries more weight with the fans from all three teams. The Cascadia Cup transcends the awareness of just the hardcore supporters and represents the true title of best team in the region to the entirety of the local soccer community. With 2011 being the first season all three teams are in the top flight of professional North American soccer, a competition with its origins in 2004 clearly supersedes the relatively new Heritage Cup.

Some novel ideas have been passed around of how to revive interest in the Heritage Cup among Timbers and Whitecaps supporters, most notably a “title-fight” mechanism similar to what goes on in the worlds of boxing and MMA. In such a competition, whenever the holder of the Heritage Cup plays an MLS regular season match with a legacy-named qualified opponent, the trophy is up for grabs. Beat the title holder and the challenger is awarded the cup. Draw or lose as the challenger and the trophy remains with the holder. This is an interesting mechanism, but seriously flawed in that not all games between eligible teams would be Heritage Cup matches, and all but the most hardcore supporters would not know the difference. I feel the competition would slowly fade into irrelevancy without the consistency of identification a Heritage Cup eligible game would suggest.

The Heritage Cup competition certainly needs an overhaul, especially with the growing reluctance of the Pacific Northwest clubs to even acknowledge it exits, if it wants to survive future seasons. I know from talking to the competition’s strongest advocates that work is being done in that direction, and I wish them all the best in returning to the table with a format that brings the Timbers and Whitecaps, while retaining the Quakes and Sounders, into play. And maybe in the years to come — maybe the New York Cosmos actually come into existence — the organizers’ attempt to celebrate NASL legacies will take root and the Heritage Cup will be here to stay.