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Red Bulls defy doubters and creep on the come-up with late season recovery

Gerhard Struber saves his tenure and prepares to take his rapidly-growing team for a joyride in playoffs

MLS: New York Red Bulls at New York City FC
Gerhard Struber and the Red Bulls stood their ground and snuck into the playoffs against all predictions before and during the season.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

While even the early parts of the season were tinted with a tacit knowledge that Gerhard Struber’s first full season in New York was the beginning of a re-boot, few expected missing out on the playoffs for the first time since the Juan Carlos Osorio years. Such a finish would have been a clear backwards step for the club, one that would have damaged Struber’s credibility significantly. But as the 44-year-old Austrian put it in a uniquely triumphant press conference, “we did it.”

The New York Red Bulls have qualified for postseason action for the twelfth straight year. While seventh place is not exactly the trophy some of last night’s celebrations might imply, the maintenance of the streak against all odds (the team had a 7% chance at qualification at one point in September) and on the strength of their organizational ideology is a reminder of New York’s status as one of America’s truly sustainable big clubs and as an underrated triumph of Red Bull Global’s systematic soccer operations. Neglected farm teams don’t finish in the top half of a salary-capped table for over a decade, forgotten stepchild teams don’t win three league points titles in the same timeframe, and hopeless austerity cases are not staffed with Premier League executives and Premier League-bait coaches.

As captain Sean Davis said postgame, the Red Bulls are a team with higher standards than most MLS clubs - and perhaps recognizing such status should be considered by fans and the media, speaking of which…

PULLING OUT THE RECEIPTS

Many Red Bulls fans and even the club Twitter account had fun running a victory lap around the dismissive predictions given by many national pundits earlier in the year. Gerhard Struber himself got in on the action post-game, when he reminded attending writers that he “(remembered) comments from the media. They give us nothing.”

While the doubt often cast towards the operation in New York probably isn’t erased by a mere 7th place finish, the successful recovery of Struber’s team is a strong defiance of the premise offered by many in the national press (and some supposedly loyal fan media) that the team’s summer struggles meant they were just plain bad and not worth covering.

When taking away those nightmare months of July and August, when the team was missing starters Andrés Reyes, Sean Nealis, Caden Clark and Andrew Gutman (not to mention veteran reserve Daniel Royer) for nearly the entire stretch through injury, the Red Bulls had an 11-6-7 record. This registers at a 1.63 points-per-game average that would have been good enough for second behind New England in the final conference standings. Not bad for a team that was already missing defensive talisman Aaron Long through a season-ending Achilles injury since May.

Nobody, least of all the management, is claiming this is a finished squad without areas to improve. While the team senses the danger they can cause other teams in this month’s playoffs, there’s still a wide understanding that the current team being built won’t reach full flight until next year.

But the screenshot receipts of basement-dwelling predictions are exhibits that The Case Against The New York Red Bulls isn’t just that they’re not doing enough to be in the league elite - it’s that the team is supposedly beneath the rest of the league, including high-spending beacons like Miami and Chicago and Cincinnati. The Red Bulls are certainly striving for much higher than 7th, but even before they attempt to summit, the knee-jerk narratives of supposed austerity and inadequate talent in the New York operation are becoming harder and harder to justify.

PECKING ORDER GETS THE HORNS

There may not have been many old scores to settle in the first game the Red Bulls have ever played in Nashville. But the playoff berth on the heels of massive momentum in the season’s final months leaves the Red Bulls with a much clearer idea of their place in a flattened and rapidly-shifting Eastern Conference hierarchy.

Struber’s team can take solace that the one team in the conference to sweep them (and the only team to beat them by two goals) in 2021 was the Supporters Shield-winning juggernaut built by Bruce Arena at New England Revolution. While they didn’t end up deflating their cross-town rivals’ season entirely, the Red Bulls’ attention-grabbing control of this season’s derby matches left New York City FC heavily damaged in what had once appeared to be a season of destiny in their second year under Ronny Delia.

The Red Bulls did finish ahead of another rival - one of more similar build status - in DC United. DC manager Hernan Losada’s youthful ebullience and high-pressing scheme with a young squad bears more than a few similarities with the project in New York, and indeed it should have been seen as embarrassing that Losada’s team took seven of nine possible points from Struber’s Red Bulls this year. But finishing ahead of a team that is not only a technical parallel but a longtime rival is one of the minor feats of this late season recovery.

In the first round of the playoffs the Red Bulls will face a Philadelphia Union side that is on the opposite end of the trajectories being attempted in DC and Harrison. Gerhard Struber was reluctant to discuss his assessment of Philly post-game in Nashville, but in the Red Bulls’ three matchups with the Union this year Struber has expressed an awareness of their Red Bull ties. Sporting director Ernst Tanner arrived in Philadelphia in 2018 from a long stint in charge of the Red Bull Salzburg academy that served as the professional incubator for a young coach by the name of Gerhard Struber. Besides the personal familiarity, Philadelphia and New York play a similar style of high pressing and vertical attack that one would think ensures open play, but has played out this year in the form of cagey tactical battles between respectful opponents.

In the meantime, 2020 risers like Columbus and Orlando have hit the wall while aforementioned expensive insurgencies in Miami and Cincinnati have turned out to be paper tigers. The Red Bulls are primed to make a big leap forward towards the top of the conference shuffle next season…and they might even get a head start in this year’s playoffs.