The New York Red Bulls' 2017 MLS regular-season will be defined by the results the team is able to achieve, but the overall schedule provides some clues as to how the year might progress. A look at the season ahead as defined by the fixture list, before too many results intervene and the true character of RBNY's 2017 is revealed.
1. A month of opening days
The first few games of the season see RBNY mostly playing OccasionBall. For almost a month, every match the team plays will be HISTORIC, in some way or another. The history-making parade has already started: the Red Bulls have played their first-ever CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal, against fellow first-timers at that stage of the competition, Vancouver Whitecaps. Along the way, RBNY also therefore played its (earliest-ever) home opener - the February 22 first leg against the Caps - and provided Vancouver with opposition for its 2017 home opener in the second leg.
The Red Bulls then played Atlanta United on March 5, spoiling the Expansion team's opening-day party by executing a smash-and-grab comeback win. Next, RBNY has its own MLS home-opener against Colorado Rapids on March 11. And then it will visit Seattle Sounders on March 19 for yet another home-opening match.
2. The Home Stand
Starting on April 15 against D.C. United, RBNY will play through a cluster of home games: DCU on 4/15; Columbus on April 22; Chicago on April 29 (Dax McCarty's homecoming, of sorts); LA of May 14; Toronto on May 19; New England on May 27. Six matches in an eight-game stretch (KC and Philly away, on May 3 and May 6 respectively, will punctuate the home stand) played at Red Bulls Arena: more than one third of the 17 home games RBNY will play in the MLS regular season this year. And five of those matches are against Eastern Conference rivals.
It has become an axiom of MLS coverage that all teams are pretty good at home, and the better teams are dominant. Last year, Houston Dynamo was the only team in the league that didn't win more often than it lost at home. And RBNY picked up 41 of the 57 points it tallied in the regular season at Red Bull Arena.
The schedule evens out, of course, and in the end all teams will have played 17 times at home and 17 times away, so a brief imbalance in the fixture list evens out over time. But the April-May home stand in RBNY's schedule is an early opportunity to either catch up or break away in the league.
By the end of May, the regular season won't even be half-complete for the Red Bulls, but the glut of home games will likely have a distorting effect on the perception of their status in the league. They can expect to either be seen as red-hot early challengers for the Shield as they come out of a long streak of home wins, or a succession of points dropped at Red Bull Arena will give the impression the team is out of the running for the year's bigger prizes before the running has really started in earnest.
3. Summer in the city
RBNY is sort of set up for a summer swoon. The team plays 12 games between Labor Day and Memorial Day, and seven of those are away. Road trips and hot weather are near-perfect conditions for a slump, and the Red Bulls will travel more often than not in the summer months. There are long and longer journeys in the summer schedule: to Montreal in June, Minnesota in July, Portland in August and Dallas in early September.
But the defining narrative of the summer for RBNY is likely to be the three games played against neighbor New York City FC.
The schedule requires that three opponents must be played three times in the regular season, and the league does its best to make those games that fans might be interested in seeing more often than other match-ups. For RBNY, this year's thrice-played opponents will be Philadelphia, DC, and NYCFC. All three are Red Bulls' rivals in the schedule-makers' minds, and all three represent relatively short trips by MLS standards. Indeed, going to NYCFC is hardly a trip at all - some Red Bulls players probably have a longer commute to training than to Yankee Stadium.
The full set of regular-season meetings with NYCFC are contained within RBNY's 12-game summer: two games at Red Bull Arena (June 24 and August 25) bracketing a trip to the Bronx on August 6. One quarter of the Red Bulls' MLS summer will be spent playing its (geographically) closest rival.
Throw in the fact that two of the other away games between June and September are against Philly and New England Revolution, and it will feel like RBNY is close to home more often than not this summer.
4. Vancouver and Atlanta again
This year started for RBNY with big games against Vancouver and Atlanta - the former in CCL and the latter in its inaugural MLS match. The Caps bounced RBNY out of CCL and RBNY spoiled Atlanta's first-ever home game.
It will be a long time before the Red Bulls see either side again (unless they run into Atlanta in US Open Cup), but when they do, both the Caps and the Expansion United will have the chance to play spoiler to RBNY's 2017.
It is possible the Red Bulls' season won't come down to needing point out of its last two league game at home - but it's unlikely. Most teams in MLS still have something to play for at the end - the Shield, optimal seeding for the playoffs, making the playoffs at all - and home games are always the best chance of picking up points. The Caps and Atlanta got to set the tone for the start of RBNY's year, and they'll have a chance to set the tone for the end when they come to visit RBA on October 7 and October 15 respectively.
5. Farewell RFK (maybe)
A smart move by the MLS schedulers: RBNY will be D.C. United's final regular-season opponent in the last game of its last season at RFK.
DCU expects to have a new place to play by June 2018. Construction projects have been known to miss deadlines and DC will have to play somewhere until Audi Field is ready, but 2017 is earmarked as the team's farewell to its soon-to-be-old home.
Expect RBNY to be one of the first teams lined up to play DC at its new stadium, since rivalry games are a reliable way to draw a crowd - so this end-of-2017 trip to RFK could be the last time Red Bulls fans get to make the trip to DCU's comically-inadequate current home. Unless the two teams meet in the playoffs, of course.