Clinching the Supporters' Shield, which the Crew accomplished Sunday by tying the Fire, 2-2, at Toyota Park, isn't even half the battle in MLS. Of the 12 MLS Cup winners crowned since the league began play in 1996, only four finished with the best regular-season record. Schmid coached one of those teams but still he's tamping down any tendency to get giddy.
"In LA we won the Supporters' Shield when I was there as well and I don't know if any team puts anything up for the Supporters' Shield," he says of the 2002 season in which the Galaxy posted the best regular-season record and won MLS Cup. "Obviously, the Supporters' Shield means something now, too, with qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League. But I really believe teams should banner the Supporters' Shield."
The 2004 Crew finished tied with Kansas City for the best overall record, and the 2002 Crew won the Eastern Conference title. Neither team reached MLS Cup. Schmid, of course, lost his job as head coach of the Galaxy in 2004 with the team in first place. He sat out a year, and after taking over the Crew in 2006 had missed the playoffs the past two seasons prior to topping the table in 2008.
"That was the goal when we were building the team, to get a base of players, who could play together for a number of years," says Schmid. "Right now, we're just worried about us, just maintaining what we've got going to stay fresh and divvy up our training in the proper amounts, so they stay sharp and we don't kill them at this stage. What we want to do is maintain the sharpness of about 15 or 16 players."
Columbus added former Revs attacker Pat Noonan during the summer, and the return to health of left back Gino Padula has helped solidify the back line. In recent months defender Andy Iro and midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo have picked up more playing time. Ekpo played for silver medalist Nigeria at the 2008 Olympics, and he and U.S. Olympian Robbie Rogers needed some time to re-acclimate when they returned to MLS in August.
"The analogy I use is that it's sort of like going on vacation," says Schmid. "You go on vacation and you come back and everything seems boring for a couple of weeks. When you go away to a big soccer event like the World Cup or the Olympics or qualifying, you come back and it takes a little bit to get psychologically back into the everyday. Physically, you're tired, but I think it's more psychological."
Rogers acknowledges the 2008 campaign has been a drain, and against Chicago he suffered a back injury that precluded him from joining the U.S. team for its qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago on Wednesday.
"It's been a long season but very successful so of course it's fun winning games as compared to last year," says Rogers, who joined the Crew last summer after nine months at Dutch club Heerenveen. "The team is better and the players are also a lot closer than we were last year. There's been a learning curve, to take care of my body and get the proper rest and being ready for games."
Rogers cracked home a 30-yard shot against New York for the winning goal, his sixth of the season, in a 3-1 victory Sept. 18. In two of the last three games he's picked up assists as the Crew improved its record to 16-6-6 (54 points), the most points it has ever accumulated in the regular season.
It tied the Fire without leading scorer Alejandro Moreno (9 goals, 4 assists), who had been called up by the Venezuelan national team. Eddie Gaven and Guillermo Barros Schelotto scored goals to match a pair by former Crew striker Brian McBride as Chicago clinched their own playoff spot.
"Other teams can't just focus on Schelotto or Moreno, or me and Eddie," says Rogers, who is third on the team in scoring with six goals and three assists. Schelotto leads MLS with 18 assists and scored his fifth goal against Chicago. "We have a lot of other good players. I think maybe we were a little too one-dimensional last year. We're more of a complete team this year, so it's a big difference."
A win in either of the Crew's last two games will equal the win total (17) of the past two seasons.
Says keeper Will Hesmer, "We've shown over the course of a 30-game season that we're the best team. That should be worth something. Around the world that means something. Here, we still have to prove ourselves all over again. This is just the first step."