Every team needs a piece of silverware to celebrate with after winning a title; it's an unwritten rule in sports. But what does the team captain lift if there isn't one? Where's the photo op? Is there to be no enduring image of their achievement?
Those were the questions concerning the Philadelphia Union front office a little over 24 hours before the team kicked off against the New England Revolution on Sunday. The Union needed to win to secure the Supporters' Shield as the first-placed team in Major League Soccer's regular season. Fans of reigning Supporters' Shield holder LAFC had mailed the trophy to Philadelphia in case the Union got the job done and finished ahead of Toronto FC. But as the hours and minutes were ticking down ahead of match, which the Union would go on to win 2-0 to clinch the title (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.), the shield hadn't turned up.
"It wasn't until halfway through Saturday that we were like 'We need to full throttle go and get something else,'" Union manager of marketing and community relations Allie Gentile told ESPN, with MLSsoccer.com's Andrew Wiebe first outlining the backstory to the replacement shield via a thread on Twitter.
This is the story of how a Captain America shield, complete with 150 lb force magnet, became the Supporters' Shield.— Andrew Wiebe (@andrew_wiebe) November 9, 2020
I'm told the true, forged by the supporters Shield didn't arrive from LA in time, so the @PhilaUnion got creative. pic.twitter.com/nld62pyGzi
Gentile got to work on a Plan B during the Saturday and embarked on the quest of sourcing an adequate replacement shield for club captain Alejandro Bedoya to potentially hoist.
"It started at Target looking for anything that looked like a shield," said Gentile. "So that was a pizza stone, a baking tray that was circular, a sled disc and then a lot of Amazon perusing trying to see if there was anything that would get here by 8 a.m. the next morning."
A 16-inch pizza pan was purchased, but as Saturday wore on and an increasingly nervous Gentile continued to source the best option, she got a message: Captain America had come to the rescue! Or, at least, a guy called Jeremy Sullivan from Medford, New Jersey had, for he was the ,owner of a Captain America shield that he was willing to lend to the MLS franchise.
"It's the classic tale of someone in the community saying 'I got a guy, who knows a gal, who knows a gal, who knows a guy' ... we might have a solution and literally that's how it happened," the Union's chief marketing officer Doug Vosik told ESPN. "It's one of those pretty funny stories that you hear in comedy routines, but it's actually true."
Sullivan is the boyfriend of the sister of the fiancée of Tom Via II, who works as the Union's web manager. Luckily for the Union, Sullivan was more than helpful, not just agreeing to hand over the shield, but even measuring it and taking pictures so the fabricators could start planning how to overlay the vinyl image, which the club's design department hastily put together, on to the shield.
"So we drove out to Medford, New Jersey, got the shield and it was then brought back to Chester [Pennsylvania] where our fabricators are and they were a little blown away by the actual dome shape of it, so then there was another hurdle of them making sure they could get the vinyl to stretch properly over the top of it, but they did it and it turned out really, really great so we were really happy with it," Gentile said.
Another stumbling block was the huge magnet on the back of the shield, which has a circumference of "24¼ inches," according to Gentile, and is bigger than the actual Supporters' Shield.
"They used a heat gun to adhere vinyl over the top of the Captain America shield and there was 150 pounds of weight on the back of this Captain America shield, because the person who wears it wears it on their back with another magnet on the front," Gentile explained. "I warned our fabricators that there was a magnet, to be careful and they actually got the heat gun stuck on the shield for quite a bit as they were adhering the vinyl."
By the end of Saturday, the mission was complete and it was over to the players to actually win the game to kick-start the celebrations and, as a consequence, for the world to get to see the improvised shield. Some of those involved didn't know that it wasn't the real shield, believes Vosik, while head coach Jim Curtin apparently "got a chuckle out of the creative solution."
The shield and Sullivan are likely to go down in MLS folklore.
"Jeremy is now this cult icon in Philly," stated Vosik. "He's going to be a man of the people and a hero for the Sons of Ben [supporters group] and our fans. He will be invited to every game as our new icon and as a big Captain America fan, if he wants to come to the game as Captain America and ride with our mascot Phang, he can have at it. He's a new cult hero for our team."
Still have no clue how you guys spotted the difference🤷♀️🤷♂️ pic.twitter.com/y7A9eyR4Ta— X - PhilaUnion🛡 (@PhilaUnion) November 10, 2020
The real Supporters' Shield arrived in Philadelphia on Monday, with players taking the obligatory photos alongside the ad hoc version. The question now turns to what happens to the shield Bedoya lifted as the Union celebrated its first ever trophy since the club started MLS play in 2010.
"The National Soccer Hall of Fame out there in Dallas has asked to have the shield, which is a really cool story ... that they want it next to the very polished trophies that they've curated over the years," said Vosik. "It's definitely an option. Maybe we have to make another one to hold on to to put in our own trophy case. I think we really owe Jeremy a shield, a legit Captain America shield. I have a hunch we'll be making a few more."
As for Sullivan, well he told MLS' Extra Time Radio that he is in no doubt that Steve Rogers himself would be proud that his Captain America shield was put to good use, and he certainly got a kick out of the whole experience.
"I saw one of the pictures that I'd gotten from [the ceremony] and I was like 'that looks fantastic, that is so cool,'" Sullivan said. "I'd also gotten a video of someone running up with it and hoisting it and I was like, "that's my shield!'"