The 2012 New York Red Bulls have the best record of any MetroBulls team ever. They currently sit in third in the Eastern Conference, one point behind second place Sporting Kansas City and two points with a game in hand on first place D.C. United. The team is in fifth place overall, in the thick of things where the top five teams are all within five points of each other. From here on out, the Red Bulls play 15 of their remaining 17 matches against in-conference opponents, with 10 of them in the friendly confines of Red Bull Arena, where the team is undefeated. Eight of those games are against teams outside of the playoff picture.
They are where they are, in part, thanks to the efforts of players many thought Erik Soler picked up off the scrap heap simply to fill roster spaces. Connor Lade was too short to play in MLS, even when he converted back to his natural fullback position. Brandon Barklage was an injury waiting to happen, coming off of two torn ACLs. Dax McCarty was the short end of a bad trade. Tyler Ruthven and Stephen Keel were depth, and nothing more. Ryan Meara played college soccer at some no-name bullet-ridden crap hole in the bad part of the Bronx (ok, fine, Fordham's a nice enough school. I guess. Go Jaspers).
This is all so...improbable.
The team opened the season with two losses, before dismantling the Colorado Rapids and the Montreal Impact and going on a roll that stalled briefly in D.C. before going 5-0-1 in league play when the team was ravaged by injury. McCarty and Meara stepped up season long, and it was Lade and Barklage and Ruthven and Keel who answered the call when the team was more an infirmary than a soccer team.
Early on in the season it seemed the story was that the team was finally doing what they're supposed to be doing. But that's not quite the story anymore. Thanks to a whole team effort -- even guys who don't always make the bench -- the team is sitting pretty in both the East and the league.
The team, in many ways, is the opposite of the "That's so Metro"-mired teams of the past. For a team that ignores its history at its own peril (and much to the derision of some fans), Red Bull has done a God awful job of exercising the demons of the MetroStars years. A new crest, uniforms, colors and stadium still haven't done anything in the way of shaking the constant specter that something awful is going to happen to this team.
Maybe this column is getting too sappy or optimistic or hyperbolic, but this team is more the sort of idealized, near-Olympic squad that you rarely see (or is rarely talked about) in pro sports. The team has rallied, and continues to rally, in the face of adversity. Injuries set in, the team keeps chugging. They go down, like they did against Philadelphia and D.C. and they come back and win. If you tone it down, maybe this team is The Little Team That Could (with a $13 million payroll).
It's not as if the team hasn't had frustrating moments this season. The 4-1 loss at D.C. was one of them. Letting the San Jose Earthquakes get back into the game was another. Crashing out of the U.S. Open Cup in Harrisburg was a third, but even then, the team took the loss to heart.
It's bizarre and it doesn't feel right. But even if this team doesn't win anything, it could go a long way to changing the culture of a team that's been more frustrating than enjoyable over its existence. And that could be the first step in really building something.