On a cool, early November Sunday evening, Red Bull Arena was the theater for a familiar tragic play.
A dejected Dax McCarty, bearing the disappointment of another early playoff exit on his face for all to see, clapped the fans who stuck around long after the result was decided.
McCarty almost seemed apologetic; MVP candidate and MLS assist king Sacha Kljestan was literally apologetic in his post-match comments, shouldering the blame for the New York Red Bulls’ failure to get past the Montreal Impact.
The melodrama of a premature playoff exit is just about the only post-season story RBNY knows. In 21 seasons, it has missed the MLS playoffs just four times, but has never won MLS Cup and been to the final only once. On 16 occasions, fans have watched the team slip out of contention for the league’s biggest game. It’s a story that is played out over and over again by a team that has changed its name but hasn’t figured out how to flip the script written for it: however the season unfolds, the playoffs will end in disappointment.
Recently, the club has experimented with a new variation on the theme: getting closer to success than usual. Since moving to Red Bull Arena, the team has qualified for the playoffs for seven-straight seasons; prior to the move, it missed out on the post-season four times in 14 attempts. And the team has been better than ever before, twice entering the playoffs as the best team in the league. But the 2013 and 2015 Shield-winning years ended like all the others, playoffs-wise. Still, there has been progress: in 2014 and 2015, the team got to the Conference Finals - just the third and fourth times in its history it has at least gone on something resembling a playoff run.
In 2016, it was back to more familiar territory: out in the first round.
But the Red Bulls have a plan to finally flip the script, and it is a plan that has had some success. Moving to Red Bull Arena has been good for the team, bringing the first significant trophies in its history (those Shields again). And the last one - in 2015 - was won on the back of a sudden overhaul of the playing and coaching staff. No longer would RBNY try to be LA Galaxy East (MLS now has NYCFC to fill that role) and build a roster around the fading glory of a world-class stars. It would go its own way, with a playing style that requires a young, high-energy roster and a commitment to challenging some of soccer’s tactical orthodoxies.
It is still a work in progress, but the basic plan’s success can be seen in RB Leipzig’s surprising run to the upper end of the Bundesliga table in its first half-season in Germany’s top-flight. And in the two years since RBNY flipped the switch and committed to being more like its German and Austrian Red Bull siblings - playoffs notwithstandings - it has been a generally successful system in MLS.
For two straight seasons, the Red Bulls have finished the regular season as the best team in the Eastern Conference. The evidence suggests that when the players have figured themselves out in the system, few teams in MLS can handle them, and aspects of RBNY’s tactical plans have started to influence the rest of the league.
In its way, the current Red Bulls bear similarity to a game-changing team from another sport: the 7-second-or-less Phoenix Suns of the mid-2000s. Coach by Mike D’Antoni, the team revolutionized the way offense was played in the NBA. Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion became the standard-bearers for a novel tactical approach that brought attention and success to Phoenix.
Those Suns were the darlings of the regular season: winning beautifully and playing fast. But they also never quite made it in the playoffs, ultimately flaming out without a title.
The Suns’ philosophy was to run and run and run, then run some more. Nowadays, it’s en vogue in the NBA to play fast, space the floor and have as many shooters out there as possible. But it wasn’t like this in 2004. The play was traditional, heavy on bully and isolation basketball, “Your turn, my turn” kind of offense.
But the Suns kicked off the revolution by downsizing. They eliminated a traditional center and pushed Stoudemire and Marion down. They watched as brutes struggled to keep up with Stoudemire’s belligerent athleticism, wearing opponents down on a nightly basis.
Stoudemire wasn’t the most technical player, but he was always filling out the stat sheet. When the country took notice of what was happening in the desert, it was the 2004-05 season. Stoudemire was helped to greatness by the conductor of that team, Steve Nash, who led the league in assists. He won MVP, D’Antoni was named Coach of the Year, Stoudemire got some MVP love as well.
That season, seemingly out of nowhere, the Suns stormed to the summit of their conference after finishing 13th (out of 15) the year prior. They had home court for the playoffs. As they say (feels collar getting tighter) the road to the finals traveled through Phoenix. (cringes)
But it just wasn’t to be.
Phoenix lost to a more traditional San Antonio Spurs in the Conference Finals that year. The next season, Stoudemire went down after just three games with a season ending injury and the Suns finished second in the West, again losing in the Conference Finals. The year after that, with Stoudemire fit, they found a more fantastic way to lose.
In the Conference Semifinals - against the Spurs again - Nash was fouled into the scorer’s table. The Suns took great exception to this. Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, another integral member of the team, left the bench. Thanks to a new rule, they’d both be suspended for a pivotal game 5 with the series tied 2-2. No questions asked. It didn’t matter they didn’t throw a punch, have a shove or even look all that menacing. They’d lose that game and the series.
That was essentially the end of D’Antoni’s Suns. He was around another season and the team limped out of the playoffs with a first round exit, then D’Antoni limped out of Phoenix.
D’Antoni’s ideals took a lot from the game in Europe— stop me when all of this begins to sound familiar. The brand of ball that Phoenix mastered was common in Europe, but not so much in the NBA.
Similarly, the Red Bulls press more radically than any team this side of Liverpool or Dortmund, where it’s more regularly implemented.
Bradley Wright-Phillips bears a resemblance to Stoudemire: he’s immensely important to the team, scores for fun, is a fantastic player in his own right but is thriving alongside man whose skills are perfectly matched to the team’s tactics.
Nash and Kljestan are one of the same. They’re always one step ahead, always a little off beat to throw defenders off their scent. They’re beautiful to watch; poetry in motion.
All of that is less important than the fact that— JUST LOOK AT THIS!
I mean, come on. It’s uncanny.
Kljestan runs the team, has completely re-set what it means to be RBNY’s leading assist-man, and should have won the league’s MVP award in 2016 (the NBA, at least, recognized what it was seeing and gave Nash that honor). Jesse Marsch trusts Sacha like D’Antoni trusts Nash.
The Suns couldn’t do it in the playoffs, much to the satisfaction of your dad who enjoys some good ol’ old school basketball. The Red Bulls haven’t either, much to the satisfaction of your hipster cousin whose favorite color is light blue.
But what’s it all mean? Could this mean this brand of the Red Bulls can’t win a long overdue MLS Cup in the coming years despite all of their successes?
Well, the other things the 7 seconds or less Suns and the RalfBall Red Bulls have in common is their systems seem less invincible (more vincible?) in the post-season. Moreso in basketball than soccer, the game changes in the playoffs. In the MLS, it turns to a two-game sample size. (collar gets even tighter than before) Anything can happen. (cringes until all of my knuckles have cracked)
For D’Antoni’s Suns, ardent analysts and professionals in the game stubbornly told him it’d never work. A running, jump-shooting team could never win anything real, tangible. Sure, they’d be counted on for some fun nights in February, but the game changes in May and June. It becomes much more difficult to run and open shots take an incredible amount of energy to find.
Conventional wisdom rallied against those Suns, defending against a challenge to everything it knew about their game.
If you listen closely, right now you can still hear Charles Barkley, deeply entrenched in his archaic opinions, on TBS. Not just when he’s doing his analysis for NBA Tonight, no, in the few nanoseconds of dead time on the Big Bang Theory, or under the laugh track on Friends reruns. You can hear him spewing his take that the Golden State Warriors were lucky that one season, as if they hadn’t won their conference twice, broke a record considered absolutely unbreakable and were one game (and penis-kick-turned-suspension) away from going back-to-back.
But, rambling Charles also has a point. In the playoffs, there is more time to focus and prepare for the challenge presented by one particular opponent. A jaded east coast team doesn’t travel from Miami the night before for a tip-off in Phoenix. They don’t get a few hours to prepare, they have weeks. And ample time to rest.
It’s similar for the Red Bulls. It’s easier to run a team into the ground that’s just traveled to Harrison from Montreal, having just had an emotionally and physically taxing game against Vancouver the weekend before, amid a long slog that is a regular season. Mistakes are more plentiful, and the frenetic high-pressing game thrives on mistakes.
But what really hurts the Red Bulls, and to a lesser extent was the downfall of the Suns, is that smaller sample size. An unusual event doesn’t have to throw an entire season off balance, but it can tilt a single series one way or the other.
If Ignacio Piatti hits the same shot he scored on his first goal for Montreal against RBNY 10 times, how many times does Luis Robles save that? Nine?
What a strike from Piatti. 1-0 Montreal. 2-0 aggregate, and an away goal. pic.twitter.com/VAvyuUPrnR— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) November 6, 2016
Before that, Kljestan had a penalty saved. If Kljestan takes 10 penalties, how many does he score? Seven?
Those were two moments from two key players, that went against RBNY. Over the course of seven games in the NBA, most of the time the better team wins. It eliminates some of the randomness. But that 2007 suspension to Stoudemire and Diaw was a game-changer, and it had nothing to do with tactics or players’ ability on the floor.
Just like I’m not of the opinion that jump shooting, run happy teams can’t win in the NBA, I similarly don’t believe the Red Bulls cannot get the wins they want in the MLS playoffs.
These days it’s a numbers game. There’s no guarantees, you’ve just got to give yourself the best opportunity. If they’re in the playoffs and playing well, it’s only a matter of time, right?
But there’s the chance it won’t. And that’s the cruelty of sports. If it doesn’t, they’ll just be the 7 seconds or less Suns. A fun team that ultimately was only that, and not a champion.