The Supporters' Shield is the toughest trophy to win in Major League Soccer. We could quibble over what trophy is the most important, and there isn't a right answer there. The toughest trophy to win, though, that's the Supporters' Shield.
It requires nine months of excellence. Any single poor performance could cost you the race; every single goal over 34 games matters. You can't just turn it on or off when you feel like it. You have to be committed every day; you have to be talented enough to beat the best teams; experienced enough to navigate the inevitable lows; deep enough to deal with tired legs.
And nobody has done that better this decade than the New York Red Bulls.
10 playoff appearances
3 Supporters' Shields
They have made the playoffs every single year. They have the second-highest points per season average over the 10 years (of any club with more than three MLS seasons). Five times they finished top of the Eastern Conference. Three times they won the most difficult trophy there is to win.
We often associate consistency of performance with consistency of approach — Sporting Kansas City are the prime example. The Red Bulls are the opposite. They've been through four managers and two distinct identities in the last 10 years.
The decade started with Hans Backe, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez (and Luke Rodgers, of course). RBNY were one of the biggest spenders in the league; they made the playoffs three straight years but failed to win a trophy. Marquez and Backe departed after the 2012 season, Mike Petke took over and steered the club to its first Supporters' Shield the following year. Petke appeared to be the longterm solution.
Then came one of the wildest moments in MLS history. Ali Curtis, the newly appointed technical director, fired the New York native and Red Bulls legend after two seasons, two playoff appearances and a major trophy. Curtis inserted Jesse Marsch, who only had one season of head coaching experience. (It's weird to think about now that we watch Marsch coaching in the UEFA Champions League, but when Marsch got hired by Curtis, it was a gigantic leap of faith.) It was a decision that few other people in sports would have the guts to think about, much less pull off. Such was the questioning of the decision that Curtis and Marsch took part in a town hall meeting with the fans to explain the decision face to face.
It was more than just a transformation in the dugout. To augment the coaching change, club and global soccer legend Thierry Henry announced his retirement. The era of star power for RBNY had officially ended; they were transitioning from a club dependent on stars to a club dependent on a system.
History probably hasn't done what the Red Bulls accomplished in 2015 justice.
The gamble paid off, and then some. Marsch won the Supporters' Shield in his first season and established a clear, lasting identity for the club. They took pressing and playing intensity to a new level. Luis Robles, Dax McCarty, Sacha Klejstan and Bradley Wright-Phillips created one of those teams that don't need a qualifier sentence. Marsch also put an emphasis on player development, bringing Matt Miazga and Tyler Adams through the academy and on to big European transfers, and Aaron Long from USL to MLS Defender of the Year. Marsch's success made him the unquestioned face and decision-maker of the club.
Then Marsch left midway through 2018, also for Europe's elite, and... RBNY won another Supporters' Shield. Chris Armas took over and the team went 12-2-3 down the stretch to nip Atlanta to the Shield. The managers have changed; the players have changed; the lifting of hardware has not.
The wrench in all of this — and the gigantic pit in the stomach of every RBNY fan — is obviously the lack of an MLS Cup. So much regular-season success, so little playoff success. The failure in one frontier, however, shouldn't overshadow the triumph in another. While the Red Bulls haven't won an MLS Cup, they've still climbed a few mountains.
Clubs of the Decade
3. New York Red Bulls
Check back Thursday as we reveal No.2 on Bobby Warshaw's list of the best clubs of the past decade.