CenterLine Report: Taking stock of the Heritage Cup

San Jose and Seattle face off for third cup in rivalry

Every match on the 2011 regular season schedule is important to the San Jose Earthquakes, no matter the opponent or location. With the goal of making the MLS Cup Playoffs for the second straight year, they will need to earn all the points they can to make that a reality. But looking toward this weekend’s home match with the Seattle Sounders FC, there is even more at stake for both sides — the Heritage Cup.

Founded by supporters groups in both Seattle and San Jose prior to the 2009 season, the Heritage Cup competition is designed to be contested among MLS teams with NASL lineage. The trophy itself is an impressive piece of hardware, standing over 2 feet tall and weighing nearly 40 pounds, that was designed by long-time Earthquakes supporter and season ticket holder Rob Stevenson.

“The Heritage Cup is not like a local rivalry cup,” explained Stevenson when asked where the idea for the competition came from. “It is much more about the tradition of soccer in cities that still connect to their NASL days. We want to celebrate that tradition, and thought this competition would be a great way to do that.”

The Heritage Cup trophy consists of a cast bronze bowl that is fashioned to look like the soccer balls used in the old NASL — complete with the “star” pattern that was so iconic for the league — atop a wooden base adorned with a plaque that is inscribed with each year’s winner. The Earthquakes won the competition in the inaugural 2009 season, but the Sounders captured the trophy in 2010.

However, determining the cup winner in each of the last two seasons did not come without controversy. In 2009, Seattle defeated San Jose in two of the three match-ups between the teams, yet the Earthquakes took home the title. For the sake of fairness, the competition’s rules committee deemed that only one of the two matches hosted by Seattle would count toward the competition. With each team winning their designated home match in the Heritage Cup, the Earthquakes claimed the trophy by winning the first tie-breaker — aggregate goals scored.

Controversy struck again last season when, after the two-game series, each team had lost their home match by identical 1-0 scorelines. Utilizing the third tie-breaker — the team with the most points in the MLS standings to that point in the season — gave the trophy to Seattle, even though they had played three more games. There will be no such polemic this year, however, as both teams will have played the same number of fixtures when they meet in the next-to-last match of the season. 

The two expansion MLS franchises this year, Portland and Vancouver — named respectively after their NASL namesakes the Timbers and the Whitecaps — plan to sit out this year and wait for future seasons before entering the fray, leaving San Jose and Seattle to battle it on their own out once again. For long-time Sounders supporter Heather Johnson, defeating the Earthquakes and keeping the 2011 Heritage Cup in Seattle remains important despite the absence of their two Pacific Northwest rivals.

“It might not be as bitter a rivalry as we have with the Cascadia Cup teams,” she explained, “but we are always happy to have another trophy — the more the merrier.”

This Saturday evening, the Heritage Cup trophy returns to San Jose in the hands of the Sounders supporters and will be ushered onto the field at Buck Shaw Stadium for a pregame ceremony. To signify that Seattle are the current holders of the cup, members of the Earthquakes supporters will present a pennant that honors the 2010 competition winners to current Sounders team captain Kasey Keller. Afterward, the trophy will remain in possession of the Sounders supporters before returning to Seattle in anticipation of the second leg of the competition in mid-October.

“Nearly 300 of us are coming down to San Jose,” said Johnson of Saturday’s match, “and the cup will be coming with us. We’re bringing it to show it off.”

However, the Earthquakes supporters will be ready to cheer on their team against their Seattle rivals. Perhaps getting a glimpse of the Heritage Cup will propel them to push their team even harder to get a great result and set the stage for the trophy’s return to the Bay Area in October.

“It has been a lot of fun to be a part of putting this competition together,” said Stevenson, “but we don’t want to see Sounders FC win the trophy again this season. With all the tradition and history around the Earthquakes, it would be nice to see the Heritage Cup come home to San Jose.”