On Saturday night a New York Red Bulls team finally equipped with a full squad and the wind behind their sails like a wide-eyed Truman Burbank could’ve earned a dramatic derby victory over New York City FC and turned their season around to finally defy the apparent limits of their existence to make a Cinderella run to win an MLS Cup. But even if such an optimistic scenario was on the way, the possessive and change-averse powers in the sky (or FS1 producers’ room) were never going to allow such a story arc to reach its climax just this early.
Over the course of this summer it’s certainly seemed like the Red Bulls have had divine beings and/or screenwriters determining their obstacle-laden fate. Much like cancelled preseason friendlies, lawsuits against Argentine agents, injuries focused on a single position, appendicitis in teenage prodigies, whiffed headers and extraordinary video review decisions, it is perhaps most dramatically the now-multiple weather postponements that make it appear this Red Bulls season is cursed and impossible to salvage.
On July 17, on the heels of what then seemed like a minor stall in form with a series of draws, the Red Bulls were scheduled to play bottom dwellers Inter Miami, a shapeless team that seemed primed to be picked apart by even the hobbled summer version of the Red Bulls. But in what is a now-familiar dance for New York fans, a two-plus hour lighting delay ended with the match being postponed to next month. The process repeated itself on Saturday night, this time with the lightning subsiding only for incessant rain to leave the pitch unplayable for the derby match against City...at least according to referees who may or may not have had the authority to cancel the match.
Of course the games will get played again, but they will certainly pack less competitive punch as rushed fall midweek affairs than they would have in the mid-summer moment when the Red Bulls could have most used a shot in the arm before their recent tumble down the table. Games of course do not happen on paper or in a vacuum. Part of the magic (or curse in New York’s case) of sport is the reality that in order to complete a successful season, a collection of variables in and outside of the team’s control must also come together.
Which is why it has seemed that for some time now - perhaps even before the season started - the Red Bulls have decided they will try to put that season together in 2022 rather than now. Despite the high bar set by this website before the season, hints both in recent press conferences as well as the beginning of the year have hinted at the medium-to-long term approach being taken by sporting chief Kevin Thelwell and his first hand-picked manager Gerhard Struber.
The offseason was laden with signings as the European duo sought to reshape a squad gone stale after years of unfocused technical planning in the aftermath of Jesse Marsch’s departure in the middle of the 2018 season. But in a “try-before-you-buy” practice Thelwell said was partially influenced by the lingering logistical and social difficulties of the COVID pandemic, roughly half of those signings (including now-key starters such as Fábio, Carlos Coronel, and Tom Edwards) were done on temporary loans. The squad’s salary cap outlay remains bloated with the contract of seemingly-unwanted players, and the new management regime seemingly wishes to use their wide network of transfer contacts to assess what’s most needed in the squad before making the big commitments so often-craved by New York fans.
When asked about his goals for the near future in a recent post-match interview, Struber said that the team winning trophies is a “dream that can be turned into a goal” if the team makes the right moves in the upcoming transfer windows. The first-year head coach has consistently said even in the face of the team’s difficult recent results that he nonetheless continues to see next steps in a technical process being made a young squad. As his assistant Ibrahim Sekagya said to OaM earlier this month, the team is seeking to find a group to build around long-term rather than jump for success right away. Perhaps the most striking and mechanic apparent preparation for 2022 comes in the form of Struber’s decision in several recent games to not use the extra substitutes granted by temporary pandemic regulations.
Until then the team is now staring in the face of a potential short-term step backwards. If current table placement holds the team will finish lower than they had in the previous two misbegotten seasons plotted out by the since-replaced Chris Armas. But while it might be easy in such a turn of events to lambast Struber as a downgrade from the now ex-Toronto FC manager, the Austrian syncing New York with the Red Bull tactics and recruitment network more than ever before has been given a much different and more ambitious mission than the failed Armas tenure premise of maintaining the high standards set by the Jesse Marsch team.
Indeed even if the team doesn’t make the postseason, 2021 is shaping up to be a much more productive failed season than 2019 and 2020’s slightly-extended campaigns that ended in anticlimactic first round playoff exits for teams that never came close to hitting their stride. Rather than aimless cutting and pasting at what should have been positions of strength and attempting to force results the team isn’t built for, in 2021 talents new and established alike are staking themselves out as building blocks while the front office maintains the flexibility to pick and choose which loanees they keep as the team sheds more and more old contracts in the coming months.
But the powers that be will continue to challenge us whether for their own sick entertainment or to ensure a fully-formed team that has persevered to attain the breakthrough they crave. Whether it’s building a team to win in the years to come or just renewing your ticket plan, a couple of unprecedented rainstorms shouldn’t keep you from abandoning a well-plotted script to escape the past.