Red Bulls cap record season with another Supporters' Shield, but MLS Cup remains the target

New York overcame Atlanta United to secure their third Shield in six seasons, but the quest for a first MLS Cup still looms

For most head coaches, winning your first piece of silverware would be enough to fixate on for one day. Not Chris Armas.

As much as Armas enjoyed seeing his team win the 2018 MLS Supporters' Shield on Sunday, the New York Red Bulls manager also knows the history of the team he coaches, and the one glaring void even Sunday's record-setting victory couldn't fill.

The Red Bulls won their third Supporters' Shield in six years, setting a new MLS record for points in a season in the process, with a 1-0 win over Orlando City. The familiarity with the prize didn't temper the post-match celebrations, filled with hugs, singing and streams of confetti, but there was Armas, in the middle of his speech to the team's most fervent fans, letting them know that the prize they truly want is the one the Red Bulls are squarely focused on.

"This is the beginning," Armas told fans in a post-game address. "I promise you we are going after MLS Cup."

The normally stoic coach delivered that line with far more passion and fire than usual, but Armas — who won an MLS Cup with the Chicago Fire 20 years ago — understands the Red Bulls' need for an MLS Cup.

"We know they want the Cup, and this is the first step," Armas said. "Some say the Supporters' Shield, it's amazing, but they want the Cup and that's the first step."

The talk of the MLS Cup shouldn't overshadow just what the Red Bulls accomplished on Sunday. New York broke Toronto FC's record for points in a season — set last year — and became just the fourth team to win three Supporters' Shields, and only the second to win three in a six-year span (joining the 2004-2009 Columbus Crew).

Atlanta United proved a worthy adversary in the chase for the Shield, and it took a beautiful goal from Derrick Etienne to knock off an Orlando City side that was clearly determined to play the role of spoiler in much the same way Toronto FC successfully did in demolishing Atlanta United on Sunday.

"Three in six years is amazing," forward Bradley Wright-Phillips said. "I know you don't get credit in this league for winning the Shield, but it's the hardest thing to win and we've won it three times in six years. I'm proud to be on this team."

As satisfying as it was to win the Supporters' Shield, and also to surpass Atlanta United on the final day of the regular season, it was clear that the Red Bulls have set their sights on ending the team's 23-year MLS Cup drought.

"Our goal going into the season was, ‘We can win all the trophies in the world, but if we don’t win MLS Cup then what does it really mean?" midfielder Tyler Adams said. "The club hasn’t won one. We’ve went after every trophy there is right now, and there’s only one out there left so that’s what we want to win."

"I do think everyone is on the same page when it comes to knowing that, let’s be real, over here you get nothing for the Shield," Wright-Phillips said. "No one’s really bothered by it. I think anyone connected to MLS, they don’t care. If you don’t win the MLS Cup it doesn’t matter, so we know that the big one is the MLS Cup and we’ll give our all to win it."

The Red Bulls have the notorious distinction of being the only one of the original 10 MLS teams that is still active and has not won one of American soccer's major cup titles. Six have won at least one MLS Cup, while two others have won at least one U.S. Open Cup. The Tampa Bay Mutiny, who were contracted after the 2002 season, were the only other original MLS team not to win a major cup competition, having won the 1996 Supporters' Shield.

Winning three Supporters' Shields in the past six years has helped give Red Bulls fans something to brag about, but the absence of cup titles is a sore subject that opposing fans love to harp on, and Red Bulls fans dread. Now, with a squad that can be considered the best in team history, the Red Bulls are as well positioned as ever to end their cup drought.

"It’s a great club, seen some great players, and they still haven’t had a cup," Wright-Phillips said. "It annoys me even when I see other fans — I’m a guy that reads comments, and sometimes I’ll see other fans say 'You’ve been in here like 20 years and you haven’t won anything’.

"I just can’t wait for them to be able to reply like,‘What now?' It’ll just be nice for the fans to have a comeback."

That desire to fill the one glaring void the Red Bulls have had since their days as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars is the driving force that is now pushing the Red Bulls players, their coach and their fans into the MLS playoffs with one goal in mind. The way they have played this year, it isn't going to be easy to stop them.