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SOCCER FANS CROWN THEIR CHAMP

The unseasonably cold rain soaks through his polo shirt and fogs his glasses, but it doesn't wash the smile off Sam Pierron's face. As the University of Kansas senior walks to the center of the Rose Bowl, he's surrounded by more than 90,000 empty seats (and, okay, a few scattered fans), but nothing is going to spoil this moment.

With a plane ticket Mom gave him, Pierron has flown in from Kansas City to present the firstever Major League Soccer Supporters Shield to the Los Angeles Galaxy. Later, he recaps the triumphant scene: "We trot out to the center of the field, read about three lines, hand the Shield over, clap our hands-and run for cover."

The no-frills ceremony and sparse crowd make Pierron, president of the Kansas City Wizards' supporters club, the Mystics, feel right at home. "One night, we were playing Colorado in the U.S. Open Cup at Arrowhead, and it was just me and two other guys standing behind one goal," he says. There they were, in an otherwise empty stadium, shouting at the tops of their lungs a chant stolen from English First Division club Watford: If I had the wings of a sparrow/If I had the [tail] of a crow/I'd fly over Denver, and [dump] on those bastards below.

Before there was a New England Revolution, there were Midnight Riders. Before there was D.C. United, there were Screaming Eagles. And before there were New York/New Jersey MetroStars, there was the Empire. All around the country, between the 1994 World Cup and MLS' 1996 kickoff, hardcore fans organized local clubs. They've been standing (rarely do they sit) behind their favorite teams ever since.

"Our goal from the beginning," says Kevin McAllister, a New York attorney who is president of the Empire Supporters Club, "was to have a positive influence on the league, by standing and singing and trying to create the type of festive, passionate atmosphere you see in other parts of the world. We also let it be known that we wanted the league as traditional as possible."

Which is why they are so hyped about the Shield. Other soccer leagues recognize as champion the team that accumulates the most points (three for a win, one for a tie) during the season. In MLS (where-purists be damned!- shootouts replace ties) all the top point-getter gets is home-field advantage in the playoffs. Until now.

The Shield is the MLS Supporters' way of telling the Galaxy that, in spite of that loss in last year's playoffs to the Chicago Fire, their 32-game superiority did not go unappreciated. The diehards, spearheaded by Pierron, took three years to raise more than $3,000 for the project. Now, they wait for it to become a permanent MLS tradition. Then, says Evan Whitney, a Midnight Rider whose day job is in Harvard's News Office, "Every year it's presented, the teams can take a moment to remember that, without the supporters, there is no league."

Pierron and Whitney are soccer lifers, which in the States means they live on the Internet and in pubs that have satellite dishes to pull in games from all over the globe. In the fall, the two will enter an MBA program at Liverpool University in England, concentrating in, of course, football industries. "Our hope," says Whitney, "is to come back and work for the league, so that there will come a day when MLS is run by people who know and love the sport." And their dream? That one day, 50,000 fans will sing in unison as some team's captain raises to the heavens the Supporters Shield, the most prestigious trophy in American soccer.