Tonight the New York Red Bulls will face the New England Revolution in a match that required a 15-11 vote last week to determine whether it actually matters.
After a week of league office-fanned outrage over a decision made by a longstanding supporters organization, it has been decided that North American soccer will make a futile attempt to enshrine the disjointed 2020 Major League Soccer season without the inevitable asterisks and disclaimers. The Supporters’ Shield will be handed out to whichever team finishes first (or potentially whoever obtains the highest points per game) in a season that at no point resembled the taut, rigorous marathon normally required to etch your name on to the trophy.
After the two-week false start in March and the eerie Disney compound tournament in July, the third, in-stadium stage of the league’s attempt to salvage something resembling a 2020 season in the face of the covid-19 pandemic has been perhaps the most disjointed. Even if it’s been in numbers more reminiscent of a mid-December college bowl game named after a pet toy website, the ability of some teams to play in front of fans while others play in front of advertising projection tarps erodes any sense of competitive integrity. Professionals forced to abandon their craft entirely for the early part of the season are only recently working up to sharpness, with some of the league’s most decorated players of recent years opting out of large chunks of the season. Furthermore, entire teams like Dallas and Colorado have missed significant portions of the makeshift schedule due to positive virus tests, while the league’s Canadian clubs have been forced to play huge stretches of their “home” schedule in neutral American venues.
This doesn’t even begin to mention the more abstract toll of the broader pandemic on the day-to-day human psyche of the league’s talent, and the players and personnel playing out these games are certainly to be be commended. But the usual communal spirit that drives the emotion of sport on and off the field is painfully absent. Outside of fulfilling television contracts and sponsor engagement quotas, there is little reason to be straining to hand out trophies for a season that, unlike the major European leagues and fall-to-spring American sports, never truly began in any meaningful sense. Comments from San Jose Earthquakes manager Matias Almeyda last week appear to illustrate that this point of view exists within the rank-and-file of the league operation.
The New York Red Bulls have experienced their own microcosm of 2020 in their clear shift to a preseason-like approach to the remainder of this misfired year since the dismissal of manager Chris Armas last month. While Armas’ newly-hired replacement Gerhard Struber makes pit stops in Brazil instead of rushing into the heavily-tarped stadiums of North America, the Red Bulls are rolling out a frequently-shifting set of lineups under interim boss Bradley Carnell. New York was one of the few MLS clubs to allow select international players to travel to overseas training camps this month, allowing even further room to pursue what appears to be experimentation and talent evaluation in preparation for a new regime.
Perhaps it is with the Red Bulls that one can find a more appropriate perspective on 2020. Even if this weren’t a team in flux on the field and the bench, it would be silly to take a utilitarian, must-win approach to win trophies that would be smeared by history book asterisks and unsavory internet lore. Despite clear flashes of talent, one must not expect world-beating heroics from new signings like Dru Yearwood, coming off almost a year without match fitness and onboarding to a team without an fleshed-out plan or authority figure. The persistent deployment of striker Tom Barlow despite his snake-bit finishing of late makes more sense when one understands him as a proxy of Struber’s ideal type of forward. Even positives like the overnight celebrity status of Caden Clark must be viewed in the proper context of games that have been reduced to glorified scrimmages.
As the team heads into its final three fixtures of the “regular season” starting tonight against New England, allow yourself not to ignore these games, but to view them intently in the same way that the club itself is. This is preseason for not only the 2021 season but a new era for an overhauled club that appears to be calling itself Red Bull New York more and more in official communications as it looks to put itself back at the top of a regrouped league. Let everybody else fight for trophies handed out because of social media mobs or a playoff tournament that practically everybody is qualifying for. We’re preparing for a world that will hopefully look more like we’re used to soon.