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Requiem for a season

A search for truth

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

This is a story about hindsight. It could also be a story about narratives, about bias, about analysis, about searching for answers in a meaningless arbitrary world.

It’s definitely a story about the New York Red Bulls’ 2018 season.

Beginning with the end

Tim Parker scored RBNY’s last goal of this year, the match-winner in an Eastern Conference Final series the Red Bulls lost. Sufficient time has passed since then to look back, examine, re-live what a year it was for the team.

Parker’s goal came nine months and seven days after Danny Royer scored in an empty* stadium in San José, Costa Rica in the Red Bulls’ first competitive game of 2018.

*Press covering RBNY was present in Costa Rica in a match played behind closed doors and in a neutral country (the Red Bulls’ opponent was Honduras’ Olimpia) for safety and disciplinary reasons.

After Parker’s goal closed out RBNY’s season, there were only two competitive games left to be played in MLS. One was won by the Portland Timbers, the other won by Atlanta United. And lo, that second one, the concluding match of the MLS 2018 calendar, sung loudly and to the heavens. It sung to the tune of over 73,000 rapturous fans and media raising their voices in joy and adoration at seeing Atlanta United and its glitzy squad win a title, ushering in a new era of MLS.

You see, Atlanta United winning a title in its second year* meant something to a lot of people and more importantly to the LEAGUE.

*D.C. United won multiple trophies in its first year**

**So did the Chicago Fire***

***Without Designated Player signings****

****The Seattle Sounders won the US Open Cup in their inaugural season, and again in their second year, and again in their third - as a more present example, since the days of the mid-to-late 90s, I guess, cannot compare to today or something. I’m not sure where the goalposts have moved to; I unsubscribed from that narrative newsletter because I’m out of the MLS game mostly and narratives annoy me. Anyway, getting off topic.

A championship is always earned and deserving of praise, but it is something of a cathartic experience for the city of Atlanta. I live here, I would know. It’s a city that lacks an identity for many, even most, people. A new phenomenon that can unite - see what I did there - transplants and locals alike has amplified significance. Plus, since 1995* the city’s sports scene has gone from America’s team to 28-3, so any sporting triumph is a great distraction from the current tradition of sports teams pitting local governments against each other to get as much tax money as they can, instead of having that money go to public services, in the name of supposed halo effects provided by these stadiums in which they play.

*The Georgia Swarm won a professional lacrosse title in 2017. Though they played in Duluth, so I guess this could be the one time people from that area try to put distance from there to Atlanta.

Oh, as a reminder, any Atlanta fans reading this who live in Gwinnett and Cobb county: please call your local representatives and pressure them into supporting MARTA expansion referendums so the city’s surrounding area can get better integrated public transit. Y’all use MARTA like two or three times a year to get to united games and love it, I bet, so why not vote so that people who are getting pushed out of the city price-wise can afford to get back to the jobs they now live further away from. Anyway, I digress.

In search of meaning

Sports are entertainment at heart. But seeing a team to which you’re emotionally connected win the final game of the season is emotionally satisfying. It provides some sort of meaning to the time you’ve invested in this entertainment.

Wrapped up the investment of time and energy, fundamental to the development of an emotional connection perhaps, is also frustration and sadness. That has meaning to, which means a team that does not win a championship is not without significance.

The Red Bulls did not win a championship. I have recovered from my initial shock at watching the team drop out of the too soon. I am no longer submerged in the wave of nihilism that followed. There must be something to draw from this crazy, crazy year of RBNY soccer. There was meaning in this season.

Matches of consequence began in late February for the Red Bulls and continued all the way into late November, encompassing 46 matches in all competitions. Such length to even a non-championship winner’s season inevitably will produce more significant moments, more meaning, than say the season of a five-striped, MLS-champion team that started playing competitive games in early March and ran until early December but only tallied 41 matches in all competitions.

What’s the big deal about five games? How much meaning can you squeeze out of 450 extra minutes? Five games is the difference between playing no US Open Cup at all and winning the trophy (for MLS teams, anyway, since they drop into the competition in the round of 32). Five games is the difference between missing the MLS Cup Playoffs altogether and winning the damn thing as a top two seed (thereby starting the post-season in the Conference semifinals, under the current MLS playoff format). You can get a lot of meaning out of five games.

On Kierkegaard and CONCACAF Champions League

For the Red Bulls, the extra five games they played were actually six: three rounds of CONCACAF Champions League.

The CCL sextet’s opening number was quirky, a jazzy riff on what would become recurring themes of the season. Those who like to fret about Red Bull Arena attendance got to see what a game played in a really empty stadium looks like: the first leg was played behind closed doors and in a country - Costa Rica - foreign to both RBNY and its opponent, Olimpia. The Red Bulls’ latest hand-me-down from Brother Salzburg, Marc Rzatkowski, had a comically inauspicious debut in the mercifully empty stadium. In the second leg, RBNY fans got their first on-field sighting of the difference-maker many had obsessively tracked for months in Google-translated articles chronicling his many and repeated difficulties in persuading his own agent to let him transfer to MLS: Kaku made his New York Red Bulls debut.

A 3-1 aggregate win over outmatched Olimpia was the prelude to a triumphant victory march over Liga MX’s Tijuana. RBNY overran Tijuana at home and away: stalwart scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips bagged the two goals that made the Red Bulls one of the few MLS teams to have ever won a competitive game in Mexico; the second leg was all about the new(er) guys - the score sheet showed the names of rising star (and how his star rose this year) Tyler Adams, redeemed Salzburg loanee Rzatkowski, and Kaku, delivering his first goal for his new club on a suitably big occasion.

Besting Tijuana put the Red Bulls on the brink of an all-MLS final and re-match of the fractious 2017 Eastern Conference playoff semifinal. All RBNY needed to do was get by Chivas, and they might face Toronto FC for a shot at revenge and a spot in the Club World Cup. But the band was playing a dirge now, and the Red Bulls’ ambitions were thwarted by one of the soccer history’s great works of bunkering.

Chivas Guadalajara beat the Red Bulls 1-0 in the first leg of the semifinal series, sending the teams to Red Bull Arena for the second leg with equal but opposite ambitions: RBNY needed to win; Chivas mostly needed not to lose.

On April 10, 2018 Guadalajara was not interested in playing soccer. Chivas sat back, let the Red Bulls shoot from any sub-optimal position they wanted, and waited for the final whistle. Ninety minutes and 20 futile RBNY attempts on goal later, the game ended 0-0. The scoreless draw ended the Red Bulls’ CCL run.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard posited a social theory known as leveling, described by Wikipedia (arguably, in its own way, modernity’s greatest manifestation of leveling) as “the uniqueness of the individual is rendered non-existent by assigning equal value to all aspects of human endeavors, thus missing all the intricacies and subtle complexities of human identity”.

On April 10, 2018, soccer was leveled. Both teams experienced a numbing 90-minute event that left no one satisfied. The experience lasted as long as it lasted because a set of laws passed by an international federation in Nyon, Switzerland, dictates that all games must be equal, must occupy the same amount of time. There were shots, there were saves, but all individual efforts were subsumed by the nothingness of a 0-0 draw.

Or as Kierkegaard put it:

Leveling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one’s own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless. One person can head a rebellion, but one person cannot head this leveling process, for that would make him a leader and he would avoid being leveled. Each individual can in his little circle participate in this leveling, but it is an abstract process, and leveling is abstraction conquering individuality.

Abstraction conquered individuality at Red Bull Arena on April 10: there was a game, there was a result, all necessary protocols fulfilled for CCL to move on to its next round.

Memory is malleable, it conforms to our understanding. To make sense of that which has no sense beyond the necessity of its existence - for without a semifinal one cannot have a final - we are at the mercy of memory. If your own memory does not suit, we can turn to the memory of others: all responses are equal in the time of leveling.

An irregular season

So the Red Bulls’ joyous frolic through CCL was stifled by Chivas’ expert deployment of existentialist angst.

Nonetheless, RBNY still had the task of competing in the MLS regular season, a task that ran parallel to CCL for about a month. This called for some improvisation. To start start the 2018 league campaign, the Red Bulls sent out a lineup which included just three of the team’s preferred 11 starters - and not one of those three was a defender. Seriously, the RBNY back-line on March 10, 2018 consisted of Kyle Duncan, Aurelien Collin, Fidel Escobar, and Connor Lade. Those four held the Portland Timbers to no goals, by the way. That happened.

It was not until April 14, the team’s fifth game of MLS 2018, that the Red Bulls would start an undisputed best XI in domestic competition. It was perhaps as much out of necessity as anything else, because the roster’s depth options had already started to narrow.

In the game before - a chaotic March 31 home encounter with Orlando which saw most starters rested for CCL semifinals - Kyle Duncan was lost for the year with an ACL tear sustained late in the second half. Duncan limped off with his tea, losing by the odd goal in five. Coach Jesse Marsch could not bring in a replacement as he had already maxed out his subs chasing the game. RBNY played the last 12 minutes or so down a man, equalized in the 82nd minute and lost the game to an Orlando goal scored four minutes after it seemed all had been saved.

At least RBNY’s false hope only lasted four minutes. The 4-3 road win was Orlando’s first three-point haul of the season, kick-starting a six-game winning streak toward seemingly certain post-season relevance. For a solid month, OCSC could do no wrong in MLS. And then the team went into a nosedive that it never really pulled out of: it won just two of its last 25 games of MLS 2018 and finished last in the Eastern Conference.

Tommy Redding made his only appearance for the Red Bulls senior team in that bonkers 4-3 loss to his former club. Like the old Fox News slogan - “We report. You decide.” - it’s up to you to determine what to make of the facts presented.

Most will tell you that MLS truly doesn’t matter until August. The league is designed to promote parity between teams; the pattern of results leans toward randomness for much of the season; often, the signal does not separate from the noise until the regular season hits its final stretch. Attempting to draw lasting conclusions from one result or even several is mostly futile when you’re dealing with a league that is actively rooting for every game to be as predictable as a coin flip.

“Orlando is pretty good” was a reasonable statement for about a month and then it never was again; “DC is bad” was all anyone needed to think about DC until the worst team in the East started warming up in July and then rode a 10-game unbeaten streak through September and October into the playoffs.

Sure, some teams start out bad and stay bad: Toronto FC was the Best Team In MLS History in 2017, and mostly irrelevant in 2018 (until Decision Day; for which - thanks, TFC). But there was also Seattle: not good at all until a nine-game winning streak sent the Sounders shooting out of the summer looking like one of the league’s best (a streak ended by a loss at home to not-one-of-the-league’s-best Philadelphia, because MLS).

In a league such as this, it is impossible to ignore that seemingly small events have large impacts - unknowable in the moment - on the overall season.

The Red Bulls put together MLS’ Best Season Ever in 2018, but this was only visible at the very end of the year. Throughout the season, it seemed there was always another team a little ahead of RBNY, doing a little bit more or a little bit better.

In the league, however well the Red Bulls were doing, it was Atlanta that always seemed to be doing better. This was often an optical illusion: ATL’s schedule did not include CCL, so it spent most of the season having played more league games than RBNY. But it was also true that the team that seemed to be on track to beat the all-time MLS points record was Atlanta, because whatever about points-per-game, ATL had points on the board. RBNY was always filed under “could be” until it finally did.

In CCL, RBNY’s glorious run to the semifinal was overshadowed by TFC’s run to the final. And at the end of the year, the conventional wisdom was “putting everything into CCL cost TFC its season” - again overlooking the fact the Red Bulls played CCL too, kept its starters fresh for the big matches and didn’t play a true first team in MLS until the fifth league game of the year, and won the Supporters’ Shield by two points in a season built on the six points out of 12 the reserves were able to win in the league while the first team was dreaming of a regional title.

Maybe even boil it down further and say those two Shield-winning points can be tracked all the way back to RBNY’s opening game of MLS 2018, when Ben Mines scored his one and only goal for the first team in his one and only appearance for the first team this season, and Carlos Rivas scored the only two goals he was going to get for RBNY in 2018, and a back-line of Duncan, Collin, Escobar, and Lade shutout (eventual) MLS Cup finalist Portland Timbers while the Red Bulls romped to a 4-0 win.

Maybe results in March in MLS don’t count for anything, but the points sure do come in handy at the end of the season.

Leveling is abstraction conquering individuality

MLS doesn’t wait for the actual end of its regular season to start voting on awards for the best performances in the regular season, so the league’s end-of-year gongs can sometimes appear a little at odds with the reality of the league campaign. In 2018, we had one of those times: voters eager to recognize Atlanta’s all-conquering, all-time great squad crowned Josef Martinez the league MVP and Tata Martino the Coach of the Year. Not particularly controversial, since both were deserving candidates for MLS’ top individual end-of-season awards.

But those votes were mostly cast and counted before the end of the regular season. Some relief perhaps at MLS HQ that it didn’t have to unveil its league MVP and Coach of the Year in the spaces between a New York Red Bulls march to a Shield and Cup double.

Don’t blame the voters for the awards: the players, coaches, front office execs, and media folk whose picks determine the winners are only registering their opinions, giving praise to those who stirred their emotions throughout the season. For a long stretches this season, whenever you glanced at the league standings or scoring chart, there were Atlanta and Josef Martinez at the top of the tables, each in record-breaking form.

The Red Bulls were not front-runners in 2018. Their best players were not as conspicuously best as those of Atlanta. RBNY’s record-setting regular-season was as much about its squad depth as its core starters. And the Red Bulls made themselves hard to follow from a distance this year, because they spent the whole season juggling the lineup around CCL, injuries, call-ups, and, most notably of all perhaps, the irresistible call of RB Leipzig.

RBNY likes to say the team is the star, and this was the year it proved it. End-of-season awards voters spotted there was something special about the Red Bulls’ back-line and handed Best XI nods to Aaron Long and Kemar Lawrence, along with the MLS Defender of the Year award for Long. And if you had to pick one RBNY defender to honor this year - which the voters did - sure, pick Long: he set a club record for single-season appearances, playing in 45 out of the teams 46 games. He was the one guy in the Red Bulls lineup who would reliably appear on the field in a year when everyone seemed to go missing at some point.

Given how good the starting back-four was this year, it is understandable if people have forgotten that the Red Bulls’ top four defenders didn’t actually keep a clean sheet in MLS in a match they started together until the team’s eighth league game of the season. And that 4-0 win over NYCFC was RBNY’s third shutout of the year in the league.

The first two were achieved with a more improvised back line, and owed something to the emergence of Kyle Duncan as a starting-caliber full-back. His season was over by April.

The Red Bulls’ fourth shutout of MLS 2018 - a 0-0 draw with Philadelphia - came at the end of May with yet another adjustment to the defense: goalkeeper Luis Robles’ Ironman streak was ended by a finicky knee and Ryan Meara stepped in as cover for three league games.

That Philadelphia game at the end of May was the last time Michael Murillo played for RBNY until July 14. He and Fidel Escobar went to the World Cup with Panama, and the Red Bulls got two more shutouts in the league while Connor Lade held down Murillo’s spot at right back.

He’d long fallen out of favor, but it didn’t help RBNY’s defensive depth that Tommy Redding was ruled out for the season at the beginning of August. And injury claimed Aurelien Collin for the duration of the Red Bulls’ post-season. Finally, tragically, the back-line endured the hit from which it never recovered: Kemar Lawrence’s absence from the Eastern Conference Final series against Atlanta.

In total, 11 different defenders made at least one MLS start for the Red Bulls in 2018. Their back four of Kemar Lawrence, Aaron Long, Tim Parker, and Michael Murillo was largely together for two thirds of the MLS season, until it wasn’t for the final two games of the MLS Cup Playoffs.

It was a similar story further up the field. Four midfielders made more than 20 MLS starts for the Red Bulls. However, the team played with five midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation. That meant squad rotation was imperative for a nearly 50-game season. Marc Rzatkowski and Tyler Adams both missed time due to injuries. Midweek games forced adjustments; so too did call-ups. Much of the rotation happened midway through the year as key midfielders went down.

And the hits kept coming. Vincent Bezecourt emerged as a worthy spot starter: he went down in June, ruled out for the season by the end of August. Florian Valot forced his way into the preferred starting XI; his season ended in July. Ben Mines was no longer an option by August.

Oh, the team’s head coach took another job midway through the year. That happened. Sometimes it is easy to forget when his replacement essentially kept up the same pace without missing a beat.

Maybe the August 29 win over Houston Dynamo was the signature game of the Red Bulls’ season. Another heavily rotated lineup - Escobar and Lade slotting in at the back; Cristian Casseres and Andreas Ivan making their only starts of the season; Brian White up front, scoring his only first-team goal of the year - guided to three points by its second head coach of 2018.

Put it all together and you have a helluva story: 46 games, four competitions, fresh injury or call-up issues every month, a brand new head coach right in the middle of the year - all challenges met by a team that put together the best regular season in MLS history.

And the team really was the star. A defined system of play, methodical player and coach development, succession planning at every position: these are great ingredients in a league-winning season. But they’re not something a San Jose Earthquakes beat reporter can rally behind for an end-of-season award.

For all the tactics boards and obsessing over which team is using which flavor-of-the-month formation, MLS’ prevailing narratives are built around individual performances. The league values its playoffs over its regular season: the short sprint over the marathon; the more easily quantified value of a Cup Final goal rather than the claim that a goal Ben Mines scored back in March was every bit as significant to the league’s best team as the Shield-clincher Derrick Etienne scored in October.

Like Kierkegaard said, “leveling is abstraction conquering individuality”. “The team is the star” is abstraction, and MLS apparently takes its cues from Kierkegaard.

Best Ever but could have been better

Toronto FC’s 2017 charge to a Shield and Cup double seemed to please a lot of people. TFC ran away with the league, and then claimed the Cup: for all the talk of playoffs being different competition, requiring different qualities to a league campaign, it sure is a popular outcome when the best team in the league wins MLS Cup. Listen to the wrong people at the wrong time, and you’ll almost be convinced the playoffs are broken if the top seed doesn’t win - like the post-season is supposed to be a sort of ceremonial reaffirmation of the regular season, rather than a different tournament entirely.

So few had any qualms about anointing TFC the Best Team Ever - even before it was actually so. The Toronto FC PR Department Toronto Sun started shouting about Best Team Ever in August, and just kept shouting about it all the way through to December. As its preview to the 2017 MLS Cup Final, Yahoo Sports republished a column it had run before TFC had officially broken the regular-season points record - as if to say “see, we saw it the whole time: Best Team Ever”.

Toronto called its shot: appointed a young, well-regarded GM, who appointed a young, well-regarded coach, and they built a team around expensive star players. And when those stars aligned, they dominated the league like never before.

Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing fiction include the idea that people like to read stories they can predict:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

TFC wrote that kind of story. People love that kind of story.

RBNY’s didn’t offer anything nearly as accessible. Sure, the team hired a young, well-regarded sporting director back in 2015 - his name was Ali Curtis and he was gone by 2017. Yes, the team hired a young, well regarded coach to lead the team - his name was Jesse Marsch and he split halfway through the season that otherwise would have been presented as the culmination of his work. The team had star players, but none nearly as bright and shiny as TFC’s, and the Red Bulls kept inexplicably trading away their top players (and captains): Dax McCarty’s wedding gift from his team was being traded to Chicago; Sacha Kljestan got pitched out to Orlando as reward for breaking all RBNY’s assists records.

None of this is in TFC’s Best Team Ever handbook. Atlanta followed Toronto’s model a little more closely, making some tweaks of its own, but mostly sticking to the idea that you spend money on the best players and staff you can find and the rest will come. The league was really excited about ATL’s story - still is - but RBNY’s plan was less easy to get excited about, since it mostly involved losing as many of the club’s senior figures as possible and promoting from within to replace them.

The 2018 season was that policy writ small: a constantly shifting lineup of stand-ins and substitutes who no one got a chance to get to know before they got hurt and replaced by someone else.

Even then, RBNY might have rallied the kind of adoration heaped on TFC and ATL if it had been gracious enough to just run away with the league. But it didn’t. In 2017, TFC set a league points record and won the Shield by 12 points over its nearest rival. In 2018, the Red Bulls broke that league points record, but won the Shield by just two points.

One might suggest that RBNY’s was the greater achievement: more points than TFC for a start; also, the Red Bulls had a legitimate rival the whole way through the season - a rival that finished the year with the same points total that made Toronto the Best Team Ever in 2017. Further, RBNY beat that rival three times out of four in 2018, including a stand-and-deliver match-up at the end of September when the Shield would have been all but gifted to Atlanta had the Red Bulls not won to keep the title race alive.

But it was also an achievement that was in doubt until the very end. The New York Red Bulls never went more than six games between losses in the league, but they also never lost two league games in a row. This was a very good model for winning the Supporters’ Shield - the team was never really in a significant slump - but it also meant the team’s success was punctuated by regular doses of failure. The Red Bulls won the most points ever by a Major League Soccer team, but also never let you forget they could be beaten.

Still, the team persevered. It earned 71 points, a threshold that no other team in the history of Major League Soccer has ever equaled. It was competitive in the CONCACAF Champions League, winning a game on Mexican soil - which seemed to have been forgotten by May because the MLS season is so long and respect for CCL so low. RBNY lost another US Open Cup game to the Philadelphia Union, a tradition unlike any other except the Red Bulls passing in the Re-Entry draft. It won its last game of the season, but lost in the MLS Eastern Conference Final to the eventual MLS Cup Champion.

The best team ever through a Major League Soccer season did this with its depth slowly being eaten away by the grim realities of what happens when high-level athletic competition is exerted on the human body. Injury after injury robbed the team of quality fresh legs when it came time for a playoff tournament that would decide the champion of the entire enterprise.

Seems like a great story. But never doubt the writing advice of Kurt Vonnegut. RBNY’s 2018 was a story that was hard to predict. People don’t like that kind of story nearly as much.

If TFC’s story was about strength, RBNY’s was about frailty. Toronto conquered doubt in 2017; the Red Bulls nurtured it.

It is maybe fitting then that the Red Bulls left their Best Ever season with an ambiguous ending. For the third and last time in a calendar year, they beat the team that would be hailed as the worthy successor Toronto, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the one loss Atlanta managed to inflict on RBNY. The Red Bulls were demonstrably better than the Five Stripes in 2018, but also somehow not good enough to beat them to MLS Cup. Similarly, the Red Bulls were better than any team in MLS has ever been in the regular season, and yet it’s fair to wonder if they couldn’t have at least tried to be a little better.

Regardless of the 71 points gained, all the injuries and absences took a toll on the team. A toll the Red Bulls might have perhaps compensated for with a more ambitious approach to the summer transfer window.

The likes of Florian Valot, Vincent Bezecourt, Kyle Duncan, and more were not signed in a vacuum, each was developed in some part by the Red Bulls organization. Promotion from within is a tried and tested philosophy at RBNY, and it showed up repeatedly in the team’s success: Ryan Meara’s cover for Luis Robles; game-winning goals from Ben Mines and Brian White; the near-seamless integration of Marc Rzatkowski from sibling club RB Salzburg. And, of course, Chris Armas’ ascension to head coach in mid-season - a transition that cost the team no momentum at all.

The Red Bulls have a development system and they trust it to deliver reinforcements when called upon. But they are also not impervious to a boost from outside their own organization. Kaku was signed from Argentina. A high-performing player plucked from another league in an attempt to grow the team’s talent - and it worked. But when the injuries started to pile up, the team used the summer transfer window to promote Brian White from the reserves, bring Anatole Abang back from a two-year exile, and sign a striker out of Germany’s fourth division. Abang, White, and Andreas Ivan might all have stellar careers at RBNY - but they weren’t ready to deliver stellar performances for the team in 2018. The team could have used a more vigorous boost to the squad in mid-season, we know this because we know how the season ended. Such faults cannot be ignored, for the whites of our eyes are just that, not the color rose.

The myths of Sisyphus

Imagine four iterations of Sisyphus pushing boulders up a steep mountain. Each represents a trophy pursued by the Red Bulls.

The first, Mt. CCL, is the steepest of hills, but Sisyphus gets close to the top. Just before reaching the final incline before the peak, the boulder runs him over - going all the day down to the bottom.

The second, Mt. U.S. Open Cup, is less steep, but the boulder made heavier by history. This Sisyphus also fails in his mission and is condemned to starting again next year.

The third Sisyphus has seen the top of his mountain, Mt. MLS Regular Season, before - yet somehow always starts anew. This Sisyphus completes the task once again, but in the moment of celebration, he loses track of the boulder. It falls down the other face of the mountain, crashing into the fourth Sisyphus - who is seeking to summit Mt. MLS Cup with his own boulder. Both boulders then gather pace and carom each other into a ravine.

The Sisyphi sit for a moment near the peak of Mt. MLS Cup. They reflect on what has happened, they agree that this time it seems a little harder to start again than before. But they know they must start again. They are Sisyphus: it is what they do.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “We are left alone, without excuse.”

Those words can be applied to this column. I am alone writing this on a computer, trying to rationalize something that is just a blip on the river of life moving onward as the universe expands at speeds my feeble mind cannot comprehend. Tomorrow, or even in the next hour, something will happen to which many will ascribe greater value than the re-examining of a great soccer team’s season. It will condemn us to another content cycle of vain attempts to rationalize what is going on.

However, I can leave you all with this.

These things recounted here all happened. [Editor’s Note: Dude, there’s literally a reworking of a myth like two paragraphs above this.] How you interpret them is up to you and your beliefs. If you are using a narrative structure to communicate the complexities of a sporting season, have a go at it. But if you are subscribing to a narrative to communicate that: you are telling a story. And at best, stories are just works of immaculate fiction.

The New York Red Bulls have entered their off-season. Barring a catastrophe, the team will contest the 2019 MLS regular season, 2019 CONCACAF Champions League, and 2019 U.S. Open Cup. All other competitions are subject to scheduling arrangements.