In our desire for ANY piece of silverware - MLS Cup or otherwise - New York Red Bulls fans are eager to see how the team tackles its first-ever appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, with the hopes that Jesse Marsch and co. can overcome the Vancouver Whitecaps and advance to the semifinals against one of two Liga MX giants: UANL Tigres or UNAM Pumas.
CCL success would bring a potentially crowded schedule to start the year, and that begs a question: Is the pursuit of the Champions League worth a potential slow start to the MLS season?
Hear me out. On March 2, RBNY will play its quarterfinal second leg in Vancouver. On March 5, it plays Atlanta United in Atlanta. If the CCL quarterfinal is won, the Red Bulls will then be looking at a semi-final first leg at home around March 14 to 16. That game would be sandwiched between the team's March 11 home opener against Colorado Rapids, and a March 19 trip to Seattle Sounders. Then the team will play RSL on March 25, followed by a three-game road trip: Houston away on April 1; CCL semifinal second leg in Mexico on April 4,5, or 6; Orlando City in Florida on April 9.
The price of further success would be the home leg of the CCL final on April 19, between MLS home games against D.C. United on April 15 and Columbus on April 22. And then the away leg of the final on April 26, before a return to RBA to welcome Dax McCarty and Chicago Fire on April 29.
All told, based on the current understanding of the CCL schedule and RBNY's MLS regular season calendar, a strong run in Champions League could bring the Red Bulls up to 15 games in the first two months of its 2017 campaign:
March 2: @ Vancouver Whitecaps (CCL quarterfinal 2nd leg)
March 5: @ Atlanta United
March 11: vs Colorado Rapids
March 14-16: vs Tigres/Pumas (CCL semifinal 1st leg)
March 19: @ Seattle Sounders
March 25: vs Real Salt Lake
April 1: @ Houston Dynamo
April 4-6: @ Tigres/Pumas (CCL semifinal 2nd leg)
April 9: @ Orlando City
April 15: vs D.C. United
April 19: vs TBD (CCL final 1st leg)
April 22: vs Columbus Crew
April 26: @ TBD (CCL final 2nd leg)
April 29: vs Chicago Fire
That's a lot of games.
Yes, qualifying for CCL is a privilege. Yes, the task of balancing CCL with MLS in early 2017 is exactly what the Red Bulls were hoping to win by getting out of the Champions League group stage last season. And it can be assumed the plan for dealing with that will become clear over the course of the next few weeks as RBNY fills out its roster. But it will have to be quite a plan to reverse the impression the team hasn't got itself set up to compete in two competitions simultaneously for two months.
Right now, particularly, the team doesn't look at all equipped to deal with the challenge. For example, trading away Dax McCarty may have allowed Sean Davis to step into a starting role, but it has also limited the (current) central midfield rotation options. If Tyler Adams goes to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship with the USA, he'll hope to be there to the end: March 5 - meaning he'd be unavailable for RBNY's first two (CCL quarterfinal second leg and MLS season opener) games of the season. There is a FIFA window for internationals from March 20 to 28. Sacha Kljestan seems to have a solid shot at being involved in USMNT's World Cup qualifiers against Honduras (March 24) and Panama (March 28) - so he'd perhaps be unavailable for the MLS game against RSL on March 22.
The team can foresee some forced changes to the starting lineup before the season begins, and before any more CCL games get loaded into the schedule. And central midfield is a position of strength for RBNY at the moment - if it will be pressured by the sheer volume of commitments and competitions in the opening months of the season, consider the strain a less strong part of the roster. The current squad has only two specialist center backs, for example.
Yes, more players will be signed up shortly. They will need to be of high caliber if the Red Bulls are to convince anyone they're ready for a two-month run at CCL while holding their own in MLS.
It is fashionable every year for MLS-watchers to say the early stages of the regular season don't count. It will be doubly so this year, after Seattle turned around what looked to be an historically awful season and won MLS Cup. But, inconvenient as it may be to those seeking to calm enraged fans during an early-year slump in form, the early stages of the regular season do count. If a team drops a bunch of points early, then it needs to find form late: that has an effect on the way the year unfolds. In the case of RBNY in 2016, a relatively brief run of terrible form - six games lost out of the opening seven of the season - essentially defined the entire year. The Red Bulls couldn't really afford to take eyes off the league after that start. What might have been other priorities - squad rotation, developing tactical options - were made secondary to the simple need to dig out of that early-season hole.
So to look at the season ahead and think RBNY can simply mail in the regular season and focus on CCL for a couple of months: it's not a low-risk gambit. A run to the final at the expense of regular-season form in April and March: well, hope there's a CCL trophy at the end of it. Montreal Impact followed that plan in 2015, and head coach Frank Klopas was fired by August.
Much as MLS likes to talk up its CCL ambitions, there isn't a lot of evidence that the league's teams or fans are all that committed. Certainly RBNY's experience in CCL is that fan interest is minimal. The club struggled to get 5,000 attendees at either of the group stage matches at Red Bull Arena in 2016 - and traveling Alianza/Antigua supporters contributed heavily to that figure. Suffice it to say, it's a whole lot of effort for a very small payoff.
Montreal was buoyed to the 2014-15 CCL final by large home crowds. Maybe Jesse Marsch and the Red Bulls will enjoy a similar surge of support for their efforts in the latter stages of the competitions. But at this moment, the part of Montreal's 2015 experience Marsch might be most concerned about is that part where a coach who traded league form for CCL success was rewarded with the sack. And if he is tempted to buy in to the idea that the team can recover from a slow start in MLS: well, the team that did that most dramatically of all in recent memory - Seattle - also fired its head coach, Sigi Schmid, before righting itself and moving on to claim MLS Cup. And Marsch may have already used up his "give me time to turn this around" card during last season's great escape from the indignity of missing the playoffs.
That isn't to suggest that the Red Bulls should roll over for Vancouver in the quarterfinals, merely that Jesse Marsch might want to avoid playing the key MLS starters for all 90 minutes of both legs. Because he may not have the luxury of simply prioritizing CCL over MLS for a couple of months.
Perhaps players like Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Aurelien Collin, and Luis Robles don't play as much of CCL as we might expect. Perhaps the proving ground for a formation shift and a viable alternative to BWP up top is CCL quarterfinal games against Vancouver rather than MLS matches against Atlanta, Colorado, and Seattle.
And if Marsch still insists on starting his star players, then maybe he is far more liberal with his use of subs than he was in the 2016 regular season (when he spent a lot of time simply hunting for the points his team didn't get in its opening seven games) - a hard cap on 60-70 minutes for the veterans - regardless of the score or momentum.
It's exciting to imagine the Red Bulls shaking off their domestic bad luck and proving to be a major force at the international level, and CONCACAF Champions League is really the only way to achieve that goal. But after the way the 2016 campaign ended and the numerous controversies of the winter transfer window, one has to wonder if the team is willing or able to focus its attention on CCL success in 2017.
New signings might change the roster's appearance, make it look more like one capable of rising to the challenge presented by some of the best clubs in the region as well as those in MLS. But right now, the first team squad isn't even as strong as the one that couldn't quite get past Montreal in last year's playoffs.
Maybe, just maybe, RBNY is quietly looking at CCL and thinking it will be in a better position to fight for that title when - as is rumored - the 2017-18 edition brings a more MLS-friendly format.