Inside MLS season preview: Supporters’ Shield triumph transforms New York heading into 2014

New York coach Mike Petke directed the Red Bulls to the Supporters' Shield in his first year in charge. 

Brad Penner/Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

HARRISON, N.J.

Seventeen seasons passed in New York without a trophy. The increasingly desperate plight prompted forlorn, club-specific utterances at the latest sign of disaster and spurred incredulity at the resources and the talented (and not-so-talented) players squandered along the way.

Year 18 finally produced the results craved since day one. Gone were the disjointed squads and the nearly men of failed efforts past. In their place arrived a cohesive, competent and skilled group of players under the direction of a man who knew all too well about the previous stumbles. Their exploits led to the first major title in the club’s history and a genuine sense that all of the work completed might carry them in the right direction.

New York midfielder Tim Cahill noted the cathartic transformation underway since the Red Bulls lifted the Supporters’ Shield last October. This club isn’t a perennially starcrossed outfit any longer. It is now a team that wins titles.

New York midfielder Tim Cahill’s response to whether the Supporters Shield triumph changed the club: "100 percent."

“Straightaway when I sat with [Red Bull director of global soccer] Gérard Houllier and [New York sporting director] Andy Roxburgh, I said I wanted the Supporters’ Shield more than anything because consistency throughout the whole season is the legitimacy of a football club,” Cahill said during the MLS media and marketing tour last month. “If we didn’t win, then you’d probably be saying so close, but so far away yet again. You know what I mean?”

Red Bulls supporters know all too well what he means. Those jibes melted away along with most preconceptions last year. Petke molded this intriguing group into a fully functioning unit capable of lasting the distance during the protracted MLS season. It proved more than enough to banish the questions about fortitude, resolve and triumph for the foreseeable future.

“We were the good-looking team people thought was soft,” Cahill said. “Now we’ll go anywhere and mix it with the best of them. To try and do that again this year is going to be difficult, but at least the basis is there.”

For the first time in seemingly forever, the Red Bulls opted for stability instead of change. All of the key pieces from a year ago stuck around to defend the Supporters’ Shield. The additions and subtractions tinkered around the edges instead of tearing away at the foundations. It is the natural response to a successful season, but it still represents a significant departure from how the offseason usually proceeds in these parts.

One of the byproducts of a successful season: New York kept its core together during the winter. Red Bulls forward Thierry Henry said he thinks the rare dose of stability could help the team in 2014.

“Usually, I see 10 players leaving, 10 players coming, the staff leaving and coming,” Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry said. “For the first time, we can build on something that we have. We all know each other now. Hopefully, that can help along the way.”

The next step isn’t an easy one: New York must try to improve upon its table-topping season with a crowded fixture list ahead and a potential MLS Cup run in its sights. Extra matches will present an awkward hurdle for a team with aging legs in key areas. Cahill’s impending absence for World Cup preparations offers a distraction in the early stages of the season, while the CONCACAF Champions League looms later in the campaign to exact its own unique toll. And once those tasks are completed and a return to the playoffs is secured, then the Red Bulls must somehow navigate their way through the fickle playoff process to vanquish those MLS Cup demons.

Not too long ago, those aspirations – and so many others – felt frustratingly out of reach even with the advantages at their disposal. This club isn’t so Metro anymore, though. Everything feels possible in the wake of that long-awaited breakthrough, the corresponding relief of the club and its supporters and the removal of those millstones keeping them from a brighter future.

“The vision of this project when I first became involved was to win something, win something,” Cahill said. “And we did that. Now the next vision is to try to do that again, but also play with a good footballing style and a good foundation for the fans. I want this to be the family club. Why not? You have to have that connection that can last. That’s how you’re going to help the league.”

2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS

FEB. 24Chicago Fire – Mike Magee’s encore – Chivas USA

FEB. 25Colorado Rapids – Exploring the new vision in Columbus – Columbus Crew

FEB. 26D.C. United – Eddie Johnson steps into the spotlight again – FC Dallas

FEB. 27Houston Dynamo – Galaxy plots a return to the summit – LA Galaxy

FEB. 28Montréal Impact – Nesta shares his knowledge with Montréal – New England Revolution

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MARCH 3New York Red Bulls – Supporters’ Shield triumph transforms New York  Philadelphia Union

MARCH 4: Portland Timbers – Real Salt Lake

MARCH 5: San Jose Earthquakes – Seattle Sounders – Sporting Kansas City

MARCH 6: Toronto FC – Vancouver Whitecaps