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Are the Red Bulls never going to be a playoff team?

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And should they really go out of their way to try and be one anyway?

New York Red Bulls Vs Columbus Crew SC, Major League Soccer Eastern Conference Championship, second
Anatole Abang’s barely-missed header in the semifinals against Columbus in 2015 is the closest New York has come to MLS Cup success in recent times
Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

So the New York Red Bulls are in the playoffs again. They’re playing the Columbus Crew again. There’s not going to be very many fans this time or really anything like the usual competitive spirit of knockout tournament soccer, but it’s probably a safe bet that the New York will eventually fall to the Crew or some other Eastern Conference team as the story is well-known to go.

If you’re a fan (or critic/hater) of the club, you’re certainly familiar with the storied club’s continued inability to secure the MLS Cup trophy in its now 25-year history. Supporters Shields, La Manga Cups, and JD Power awards pile up on the trophy shelves in Harrison - but the postseason trophy that, like it or not, is most heralded by league institutions has remained untouched by the nation’s largest city.

With the Red Bulls in the midst of their biggest transition in some time, having hired both a new chief sporting executive and new head coach over the course of 2020, it is perhaps time yet again to examine overall team strategy and the viability of New York’s long-term investment in the footballing ethos of its corporate parent Red Bull - and whether the club’s inability to secure the final piece of its claim on American soccer glory should hang on its psyche so much.

While the installation of head of sport Kevin Thelwell in February has appeared to play out with New York beginning to shift away from direct oversight from corporate offices in Austria, the hiring of new manager Gerhard Struber last month makes clear that, at least in terms of on-field tactics, the Red Bull system will remain in full effect going forward. A former academy and reserves coach at Red Bull Salzburg who took the English second division by surprise with his extremist pressing tactics at Barnsley this year, Struber will have the team set up much like New York fans are now used to ever since Jesse Marsch ushered in the “energy drink” era of Red Bulls play in 2015.

The question is begged - if the plan is largely the same, should fans expect the same results in the playoffs as they’ve come to expect? The seemingly endless string of anti-climactic conclusions to thrilling seasons has led (somewhat intuitively) to shouts for creating a “plan B” strategy that were heard loud and clear by Chris Armas, whose two-year tenure as manager was defined by an attempt to diversify the team’s tactical approach in the hope of becoming a more potent playoff team.

Indeed it can be viewed through Armas’ tenure the ways in which the question of how the Red Bulls will ever win MLS Cup eventually collides with the question of whether winning MLS Cup should be the club’s main priority. Armas’ attempts to emphasize possession play not only didn’t counter-act any aspect of opponents’ typical strategies against New York (bunkering deep and limiting the space that both pressing and possession systems thrive on) but they also diluted the extremist pressing tactics that makes the club such a power in the regular season.

Fulham v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship - Craven Cottage
Newly-hired Red Bulls manager Gerhard Struber appears to have emphasized the regular season Supporters Shield title as the club’s main goal. Should fans join him?
Photo by Tom Mulholland/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Intuitively for a model that emerged from the elite domestic pyramids of Europe, the Red Bull model of extremist pressing tactics and emphasis on youthful personnel is designed for success in single-table league play - where adherence to a coherent-if-chaotic plan evens out much of the wrinkles that come from obstacles such as injuries and stale form. In knockout tournaments, it is traditionally cautious play built around experienced individuals that wins trophies - think of the cagey Italian and German teams that have traditionally dominated the World Cup or the rigid, deliberate cup master managers from the European club game like Roberto Mancini, Jose Mourinho, and Rafa Benitez.

Indeed the particular format of Major League Soccer’s salary cap as well as its knockout playoffs (which shifted last year to a single-elimination format even before the onset of covid-19-related schedule condensing) rewards front-end spending and moments of individual brilliance in a way that Red Bull and its technical ethos will never devote itself to. So perhaps it’s time to begin giving stronger consideration to the ample advantages provided by declining a short-term cup-hungry approach.

The continued emphasis on precise contingency plans for the roster and management based on the principles of young talent and energetic pressing play leaves New York with a huge advantage over much of a still-underdeveloped league, if perhaps less primed to capture a stroke of luck in the postseason. While cup success has not arrived yet, the Red Bulls have thrived and should continue to thrive in the infinite game of maintaining a competitive squad year after year even amid short-term setbacks - the fact that the team fell only to mid-table under two years of inept coaching by Chris Armas only helps to illustrate this advantage.

If winning MLS Cup at any cost rather than maintaining technical fluidity was a priority, Struber (who the club announced last night is now finally in the country) would be taking control of the team ahead of Columbus instead of leaving the end of this multi-dimensionally bizarre season to be handled by caretaker Bradley Carnell. Indeed, in his recently-released introductory interview published by the club, Struber went out of his way to say that winning the Supporters Shield is a key competitive priority. Even before Struber’s arrival, New York stars such as Bradley Wright-Phillips and Lloyd Sam expressed befuddlement in interviews regarding the anxiety over playoff failures as well as why there wasn’t more appreciation for the more-challenging Supporters Shield titles both in and outside the fanbase.

With these factors in mind, this column still isn’t meant to dispute the idea that the MLS Cup trophy is the most prestigious title in American soccer. A combination of national sports tradition and the limits of the league’s geography and logistics means the playoff champion will always have a more vivid short-term framing and grip on the memory than the winner of an unbalanced (if more-challenging) Supporters Shield.

This column is meant more to dispute the idea that playoff success is the only factor to be judged on in a sport like soccer that provides so many more different types of rewards than the typical closed-shop American playoff sports league. Teams aren’t just hoping to win the same single playoff trophy year after year, but league titles, Open Cups, Champions Leagues, and even the more abstract rewards of sound transfer policy and presence on the tactical cutting-edge. In a global football network that MLS is increasingly integrated with, a trophy like MLS Cup should be seen as a bonus you win on top of a more general confidence and form generated in all competitions.

But in the meantime, just being the best team in the regular season again like we were two years ago would be nice.