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Supporters’ Shield provides emphatic proof of Toronto FC’s rude health

It’s not the Cup, but no other MLS honour requires such sustained excellence.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

I’m not going to try to persuade you that the Supporters’ Shield means more - or should mean more - than the MLS Cup.

It just doesn’t and it probably never will. This is North America, and nothing matches the playoffs. There is no logic or reason to that; it’s simply a feeling, the way we have all been tuned.

Saturday’s win over the New York Red Bulls and confirmation of Toronto FC as the newest Supporters’ Shield winners was another magnificent night for the club, but it did not have the same electricity as the Canadian Championship final in June, last season’s Eastern Conference final or even the first leg of the semi-final at BMO Field before it.

All of those games featured late Toronto goals and so did this one, but the place did not quite explode in the same way.

“It’s been a semi-muted celebration because we know we’ve got two of the three [trophies] and the third one is the biggest one that we’re after,” Greg Vanney said.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

There is no doubt this trophy means a lot to a number of fans, especially those that have supported this club through a full decade of few highs and many lows. That was clear, and they deserve to bask in the success.

But once the brief on-field celebrations had ended the players returned the locker room to shower, pack up and go home as they do after every game, the single cans of beer perched in a handful of stalls the only evidence of the significance of this particular occasion.

And really, it was the most significant in the history of Toronto FC.

Regardless of the emotional meaning of the Shield, it is indisputably the honour which most accurately reflects which team is simply the best in the league over the course of one season.

The fourth or fifth or 12th-best team in MLS can get hot come playoff time and ride momentum, good fortune or both all the way to an MLS Cup. The league table over 34 games, though, doesn’t lie - especially when one team is nine points or more ahead of the all of the others.

So while the MLS Cup may be the trophy that everyone wants - and the one that will inevitably define TFC’s season as a whole - the Shield provides the most bulletproof endorsement of the path the club has taken under Vanney, Tim Bezbatchenko and Bill Manning.

Toronto’s management has had the luxury of being able to spend as much as any club in MLS, and that goes beyond the signings of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley and extends to the top-of-the-range facilities at BMO Field and the Kia Training Ground and the vast staff that surrounds the first-team squad and caters to its every need.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

But while that budget should absolutely make competitiveness a minimum expectation it does not make it a given in a salary-cap world, as every Toronto sports fan knows all too well.

And while Giovinco, Altidore and Bradley have undoubtedly driven the turnaround in Toronto’s fortunes, claiming the Shield so comfortably is further evidence that their work across every aspect of team-building is, as a complete package, unrivalled across the league.

Toronto gave Vanney, arguably now the most talented young coach in MLS, his first job in management and then stuck with him through a sometimes challenging learning curve.

Bezbatchenko was identified as an outstanding mind at MLS HQ and given control of his own team for the first time, later to be aided by one of North America’s most accomplished executives in Manning.

Together, they plucked Alex Bono and Nick Hagglund out of the SuperDraft and picked up everyday starters Eriq Zavaleta and Marky Delgado for virtually nothing, unnoticed by the rest of the league.

They added an essential piece - Drew Moor - in MLS’ limited form of free agency without overpaying and continued to add proven veterans wherever they could find them being discarded at a low price.

And the scouting network they have extended around the world has taken them from good to great with the signings of Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga and Nicolas Hasler, all of whom represent outstanding value.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

One of Bezbatchenko’s first moves - made back in 2013, just six days after Vanney had been appointed academy director - still stands as one of his best: the trade of a long-forgotten amount of allocation money that brought Justin Morrow to Toronto from the San Jose Earthquakes.

Morrow’s miss in the penalty shootout of the MLS Cup final last year was the decisive one, which will have made the hat-trick he scored from left wing-back to clinch the Shield all the sweeter.

“He’s been special for us this year,” Vanney said.

Morrow is playing the best football of his career within a culture that has continued to coax more and more out of just about everybody.

Bradley summed that culture up best. “When we started the season we talked about this idea of going for it every single weekend and not taking any nights off,” he said late on Saturday night. “Not tossing any games away, not thinking that we could coast through different parts of the season.

“We looked around at each other and said that the only way to really grow and improve and take the team and the club in the direction we wanted was to treat every game like it was the most important, and have this mentality that we were going to step on the field every weekend, no matter who we played and where, and go for it, and give everything to try to win.”

The Shield may not be the trophy that brings Toronto the greatest satisfaction, but no other prize provides such emphatic proof of the rude health this club is in.