Each season brings its own context. In 2015, that context is parity. Crushing, leveling, all-conquering parity. In Week 30 of this year's MLS regular season, the New York Red Bulls kicked off against Orlando City as the leaders in the Eastern Conference by a point and the second-placed team in the Supporters' Shield race on tiebreakers.
RBNY lost, 5-2. And then so did pretty much every other team with a shot at overtaking the Red Bulls. At the end of Week 30, RBNY is still top of the Eastern Conference by a point, and it has dropped to third in the Shield race (still separated from Vancouver by tiebreakers; now chasing LA's 50 points from 31 games high-water mark).
The race is still on. And it looks increasingly likely to go down to the wire as no team currently considered a serious contender for the Shield is in outstanding form. Right now, thanks to games in hand, the favorites are Vancouver (48 points from 30 games), RBNY (48 points from 29 games), and FC Dallas (47 points from 29 games). All three have lost two of their last three games.
Everyone else has to see whether one of those three breaks loose over the next few matches, or continues to falter and opens the race to a number of teams (at least six, by my count) who could snag the title if results go their way.
The past isn't much of a guide because each season has its own context. The Shield could be won with 57 points this year - but that was only good for fourth overall (on tiebreakers) for Hans Backe's 2012 Red Bulls.
Still, as a point of information, it is interesting to look back on the last few seasons and consider where RBNY was points-wise after 29 games played, and where it finished. The Red Bulls have 48 points after 29 games in 2015. How many points did they have after 29 games in past years, and where did they end up?
As it happens, roughly 48 points after 29 games is the norm for the Red Bulls in the seasons since Red Bull Arena opened in 2010. But what that means to the club's end-of-season position in the Shield race comes down to the particular dynamics of a particular season.
|Year||Points after 29 games||Final points tally||Conference finish||Shield finish|
|2010||48||51* (30-game season)||1st||3rd (LA won with 59 points)|
|2011||36||46||5th||10th (LA won with 67 points)|
|2012||49||57||3rd||4th (San Jose won with 66 points)|
|2014||41||50||4th||8th (Seattle won with 64 points)|
An interesting point to note from the table above is that RBNY has had more points after 29 games than its current 48: in 2012, Backe's Bulls had 49. And they picked up two wins and two draws from their last five games - but 57 points at the end of the season was only good for third in the East and a distant fourth in the Shield (nine points behind San Jose). Every season brings its own context.
More interesting: RBNY had exactly 48 points from 29 games in 2013. RBNY won the Shield in 2013. But it took 11 points from the last five games to clinch it (on the last day, against Chicago Fire in a much, much better 5-2 game than the one most recently witnessed at RBA). And 11 points from the last five games of the season is RBNY's best points total in that stretch since Red Bull Arena opened (in 2010) and the league moved to a 34-game season (in 2011).
Thanks to favorable results in Week 30 of 2015, the Red Bulls control their own destiny with regard to this season's Shield race. If they win out, they'll win the regular season title. Chances are they won't win out; few are expecting any of the Shield contenders to win out. It will be a scrap to the finish.
The context of this season is a race for what might be a remarkably low Shield-winning points total. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how many points were required to win the Shield: they were won by the best team in the league that year. As we know too well, the best team in the league is not always the best team in November.
MLS Cup is a different competition with a different set of qualities required to win it (be better than four or five teams, know how to manage a two-game series, be deep enough and lucky enough to get through a crowded schedule with key players and form intact). The time to worry about MLS Cup is when the playoffs begin.
For now, for those still in the race, all eyes are on the Shield (not least because it offers home advantage in the playoffs, and if you have to play LA Galaxy, pray you get to play that game in your own stadium). The Red Bulls are once again chasing a regular season title with 48 points in the bank and five games left. We'll learn how 2015's entry in the table above matches up with the seasons past in the coming weeks.