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What did we learn from the latest New York Red Bulls playoff exit?

Saturday’s loss in Chester will likely go down as a pivotal one in the club’s recent history

MLS: Playoffs- Round One-New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union
While the ending was painful, Red Bulls fans could see a positive future continuing to blossom in Saturday’s playoff exit in Chester.
Mitchell Leff-USA TODAY Sports

This season wasn’t meant to be

As inspiring as the team’s late season turnaround and the tenacious performance in Chester were, the New York Red Bulls still had much of their current flaws on display in their playoff elimination at the hand of the Philadelphia Union (or just the foot of Jakob Glesnes) on Saturday night. Though Gerhard Struber’s team defied doubters in recovering from its midseason injury crisis and table dip, its still-disjointed attack and unsettled lineup or formation over the run did not ultimately make for a team of destiny. Even with Struber declaring 2021 a success based on the team’s successful integration on numerous new players into the squad and establishment of a platform for 2022, the 2021 season never truly took off for the Red Bulls — and wasn’t really designed to in the first place.

Though this website set the bar high for Struber’s first season of his coaching career with a big club, the signs that he and sporting executive Kevin Thelwell were building for 2022 and beyond were apparent even before the season. Not only was the team installing a new coaching staff and diving into an overhaul of the squad with roughly a dozen players shifted in and out last winter, Thelwell remarked before the season that the still-lingering effects of the covid pandemic both limited the team’s ability to lock down talent as well as compete at the most consistent level possible in a then-still somewhat ad hoc MLS competition.

Indeed a failed preseason riddled by cancelled scrimmages ended up snowballing into a summer injury crisis and a team that didn’t truly click at full fitness under Struber until the season’s final two months. All in all, it was not a championship team by anybody’s standard in and outside of the club.

But this team is just getting started

As much as the team’s confidence brimmed in recent weeks, going ahead and winning MLS Cup this year would have almost felt like a mistake for this version of the Red Bulls. Winning it all in a season described by club management as the beginning of a transition would have been an imprudent deviation from a meticulous project seeking sensible, sustainable growth from a young core.

Gerhard Struber struck an optimistic tone following the loss in Chester and spoke like a man who (despite continued interest from Europe) will not only be around for 2022, but is salivating at the thought of rolling an ever stronger team out. Struber had mentioned during the week that he saw Philadelphia as a similar project on the higher end of the trajectory he hopes to have started New York on this year. After forcing the Union to extra time in their own stadium on Saturday, Struber expressed ebullient pride in his squad’s performance against a team he sees as on the highest level in MLS.

Struber also remarked postgame on Saturday about the Red Bulls taking a “big next step” in their development into a contender. During the team’s summer slump, Struber remarked that his squad was still a transfer window or two away from changing trophies “from a dream into a goal” and after the emphatic turnaround of that slump nearly brought the team to a playoff upset, it seems the pivotal moment has arrived. Struber and Thelwell have spent a year learning about both their squad and MLS as a whole, and will know exactly what their needs are to have a team ready to make trophies more than a dream.

Rivalry with Philadelphia could be emerging

Until recent years, Red Bulls fans generally scoffed at the idea of any type of rivalry with the Union, still seen a little brother expansion team in the otherwise long-established East Coast ecosystem of MLS. Largely confined to social media scuffles and fan hijinks, Philadelphia’s lack of success and identity in early years prevented New York fans from developing much interest in ritualizing any animosity towards the team from the other side of New Jersey.

MLS: Playoffs- Round One-New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union
Red Bulls fans traveled well over the weekend for a fixture that may be growing in competitive and spiritual importance.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

But this game - with the amount of fans who traveled, the chippy gameplay and dramatic finish, and the clear difference in state of evolution between the clubs - felt like a potential early landmark in a budding rivalry. Red Bulls supporters packed seven buses from New York and three sections at Subaru Park and between the closer geographic proximity and establishment of Philadelphia as an Eastern Conference power (built under mirror Red Bull-styled principles under former Salzburg chief Ernst Tanner) the stage for tradition to develop has been set. One even dares to imagine that Philadelphia has already overtaken a still-floundering DC United as New York’s main I-95 rival.

The extra time blast from deep by Jakob Glesnes is a painfully obvious early choice as one of the rivalry’s iconic moments - though New York fans will hope the next ones in the rivalry are from their players. Perhaps if these two teams carry their late season form into 2022, a regular season battle between two Shield contenders next year could be the next temperature check for this growing semi-derby.

End of the line for a generation?

The loss in Chester proved to be the final match for longtime club equipment manager Fernando Ruiz, whose retirement has been marked by reverential ceremony from the club and league alike. But there’s likely more difficult goodbyes with less fanfare on the way in Harrison this offseason. Part of the optimism surrounding the Struber/Thelwell project in New York is tempered by the knowledge that it is a definitive end for a well-liked window in the team’s history. The regular season saw the departure of some of the final remnants of the 2018 Shield-winning team in Brian White and Florian Valot, and more could be on the way out this winter.

Captain Sean Davis is reportedly in talks with the club but is now out of contract. Daniel Royer, coming off a difficult, injury-plagued season in which he never scored, will also be entering free agent status. Kyle Duncan has reportedly been in talks with European clubs about a free transfer, while a gang of loan players will see their long-term fates in New York decided this winter by a variety of factors at play on multiple continents.

One player whose status may have become more clear last night was goalkeeper Carlos Coronel. The 24-year-old Brazilian was unable to stop the long range bomb from Glesnes on Saturday night, but provided multiple other key saves as well as another vote of confidence from his manager. Gerhard Struber remarked that he fought to bring Coronel to New York last offseason, and appeared to deliberately use the term “future” in discussing the player’s importance to his tenure with the Red Bulls. Coronel was inexplicably unlisted in the nominations for league goalkeeper of the year, but was declared the best keeper in the league by Struber last week, and it appears that the team will have stability in at least one key position.

What are your biggest takeaways from the loss in Philadelphia and the 2021 Red Bulls season as a whole? Sound off in the comments below…