Recent New York Red Bulls managers have been consistently on the defensive regarding the team’s efforts in the playoffs.
The frustrating end to otherwise dominant seasons in the Jesse Marsch era led to discourse about a mythical “plan B” that would somehow give the team a better chance to win than the system that set the team on the course for two Supporters Shield titles those years. Marsch’s heir Chris Armas doubled down on this faulty logic, muddling the team’s clear tactical approach in both his first playoff series against Atlanta and the doldrums of his two full seasons in charge.
Over the course of his first season in charge, Gerhard Struber still hasn’t technically advanced past where Armas had the team, having barely kept the club’s decade-plus playoff streak alive with a late season climb up the table. But the mood around his young Red Bulls team ahead of their unlikely 2021 playoff campaign is dramatically different from previous seasons where the team was better on paper.
“We have a big confidence, a big conviction in our style of play. We know how dangerous (our tactics) can be for every team in this league, and we have to use that. We have the weapon in our hand and on Saturday we have to use it in a merciless way.”
There were no Red Bull cans toasted to the Zoom screen this time, but Struber cut the most confident figure he has yet in Thursday’s press conference previewing the first round playoff match against Philadelphia Union on Saturday. The former Salzburg academy coach who embodies the Red Bull footballing philosophy expressed a strong belief that the team’s growth in his tactics over the course of the season will serve them well in the playoffs. Struber even went as far to guarantee a win at Subaru Park on the weekend.
“We don’t drive to Philly just because ‘oh it’s nice to be in the playoffs.’ We come because we think we belong in the next round. All respect to Philly - but we win on Saturday.”
To be sure, Struber emphasized Philadelphia’s pressing ability and danger with crossing play through widemen Kai Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo. But the Red Bulls boss was also quick to note that, despite Philly taking 5 points from three games against New York in 2021, each of the games were competitive, narrowly-decided affairs that his team is eager to have “another chance” to correct the record on their fourth meeting of 2021.
When asked about the playoff gamesmanship typical of North American discourse, the Austrian (who responded to a similar question last month by stating “our first priority is to win”) repeated his sensible mantra that his team seeks to perform the best they can in every game regardless of context, and that he does not want his players’ minds cluttered with playoff scenario milieu and the team’s supposedly cursed past.
“We know playoff games come with a special mental topic. But it’s important to have a big focus on our typical identity and not think in different ways and let the playoffs be such a big topic.”
“Maybe our advantage is that, in the last few weeks, we feel like every single game has been a little bit of a knockout game to get into the playoffs or to have the season end. I think now we have some experience in games where there is much pressure. The most important thing for me is to bring all the power and all the confidence (that the team has picked up.)”
As Struber mentioned last month, he is not concerned with what happened to past Red Bulls teams in the playoffs - including his own cameo in last year’s playoff loss to Columbus, which he described on Thursday as a “different situation” given he had only known the team for three days. Struber emphasized on Friday that his task in 2021 was essentially to build a new team under a new tactical system from scratch, stating that in such context, 2021 should be considered a success even before a ball is kicked in Chester this weekend.
“One more time - the goal for this season was to bring a typical identity into our group. I think when you have so many new players, coming from completely different cultures and soccer ideas, then I think in the end we brought the boys in the direction we want this season - and now we have playoffs and a big test for us.”
“I think when you look at a team’s development, Philly is one step further than us. They’re a group with a different age from ours, they’ve played together for longer. But I think with our momentum and what we’ve learned the last few months, we can beat them and this is the goal on Saturday.”
“My boys are very very ready. We have a good week of training behind us. We know Philly are a massive team to face in the first round but we are ready. We are ready for a big fight and to achieve one more big game, one more big performance. I feel hungry boys in my dressing room and this does not make the situation for Philly any easier.”
Struber’s excitement about his team’s capabilities appears to be shared by the club’s fans. Tickets for the New York supporters section at Subaru Park on Saturday sold out within ten minutes last Friday morning, and there’s a palpable mood of optimism around the club no matter what happens on Saturday. After three years in which rudderless management on and off the field erased tactical identity and left the club fulfilling its stereotype as boring and cheap, there’s a new regime that isn’t embarrassed to be the New York Red Bulls.
As mentioned by New York sporting chief Kevin Thelwell in an interview earlier this week, the club has a “vision” for the first time in years. While Thelwell and Struber have been honest about the team’s focus on building a stronger side for 2022, they certainly wouldn’t mind defying the odds (and their own plans) by fulfilling their mission ahead of schedule this month.