The New York Red Bulls are no longer bottom of the league after the latest round of MLS games. A 3-2 win over Orlando City has seen the team surge from 20th to...18th (they were briefly 17th before NYCFC picked up a point in mid-week). The win was certainly encouraging, mostly because it snapped a run of four consecutive losses. Winning is better than losing, 18th is better than 20th: things are looking up for RBNY.
But there is still a significant job to do before the Red Bulls can claim to have put a catastrophic start to the season behind them. RBNY still has the league's worst goal difference (-9 after eight games), the worst defense (17 goals conceded to date), and the second-worst points-per-game average (0.75). Things are mostly looking up because there isn't a great deal below for the team to see: it hit bottom when it lost to Colorado on April 16 - it's sixth loss in its first seven games.
A record of two wins from eight games is not good. A team that wins one out of four - and loses the rest - is destined for something like 24 points from the MLS season. A team that gets just 25% of the total points it competes for is not going to make the playoffs in MLS. And a team that does not finish in the top six of a 10-team Conference after 34 games cannot claim to have had a good year.
Right now, RBNY is not a good team: it is a bad team that just won a game.
The good news is not only that it is early in the season, but also that most of the Eastern Conference is currently pretty poor. Only three teams in the East are currently averaging more than 1.5 ppg, and 1.5 ppg (win one, lose one form) is a modest standard.
Since MLS bumped its teams up to 34-game seasons in 2011, RBNY has finished with fewer than 50 points once: in 2011, as it happens, when the team struggled to 46 points (and the fifth seed in the playoffs), mostly because it tied almost half its games (16).
It's too early to tell if this will be another 2011 for RBNY, but if it is the team is in luck: only one team in the East cleared 50 points that year (Sporting KC). If the East is particularly parity-stricken in 2016, the Red Bulls might not even need to achieve the relatively low target of 50 points to make the playoffs. And, indeed, most years since 2011 there has been at least one team in the East that gets to the post-season with less than 50 points (2012 is the exception: Columbus Crew missed the playoffs despite tallying 52).
This year, with six teams getting through to the post-season, it would seem quite likely there will be a not-great side in the playoffs. So maybe RBNY can meet the standard of sixth-best in the East without ever rising to the modest achievement of 50 points from 34 games.
For now, however, the team is best advised to get back on track: clamber back to 1.5 ppg as quickly as it can, get to 50 points as quickly as it can after that, and then see how the league is shaking out and whether an unlikely (from the current perspective) run at the Supporters' Shield might still be on the cards.
The first target is to reach 1.5 ppg. A team averaging less than that is not going to be considered good. Unless RBNY is aiming for the element of surprise in the playoffs - sneaking in as a sixth-seed pushover and shocking the league in MLS Cup - it wants to get to 1.5 ppg. That almost certainly isn't going to be good enough to win the Shield, and it probably won't be enough for the team to be considered particularly good, but it will at least be sufficient for the team to stop being accurately described as bad.
Currently, the quickest route to 1.5 ppg for RBNY is to win its next four games, delivering a record of 18 points from 12 and likely a much healthier position in the standings. And if that happens, we won't be talking about the Red Bulls as just having got back on track for the playoffs; instead, we'll probably be talking about them as the hottest team in MLS - they will have just won five in a row, after all.
More likely, RBNY won't win its next four games, but does still have a reasonable opportunity to get itself back to to the standard fans have come to expect (playoff qualification, at minimum) since the team moved to Red Bull Arena.
There are 26 games left in RBNY's regular season. The team needs to average 1.69 ppg over its remaining league schedule to get to 50 points from 34 games. And that is a good record - it's a 57-point campaign over a full season; RBNY won the Shield last year with 60 points, and won the Shield in 2013 with 59 - but not so good as to be considered unrealistic, even for a team that has lost six of its first eight matches.