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How the Red Bulls could thrive in the new Leagues Cup

Midseason cup competitions tend to favor clubs with talented youth and tactical purpose

MLS: New York Red Bulls at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

On a recent episode of the Football Weekly podcast produced by The Guardian, Barry Glendenning assessed where the also-ran EFL/League/Carabao Cup belongs in social discourse and the footballing hierarchy.

“It’s not compulsory,” opined the frequently droll journalist. “If you’re not interested, you don’t have to watch it. We have to feign some sort of mild interest in it. But it’s fine. I would imagine in a lot of people’s heads it ranks somewhere below both transfer windows in terms of, you know, winning a trophy. But, uh, it’s fine. I’d quite like Sunderland to win it. I’d quite like [it] if they got knocked out yesterday.”

Having already stretched the tissue paper thin attention span of the average American soccer fan to a breaking point, Major League Soccer and Liga MX announced a flashy revamp of the Leagues Cup last week. The new version, starting in 2023, includes every team from both leagues, competing in a full-fledged tournament involving a group phase and knockout stage. The domestic schedules will pause for an entire month, clearing the way for clubs to focus their efforts on winning and, more importantly, validating the existence of this potentially attractive nuisance.

The pot is sweetened, with name plurality alone demanding fans and media care twice as much as the English value their version. Multiple spots in the CONCACAF Champions League are at stake, along with financial compensation and the potential to garner the attention of the coveted Mexican soccer demographic. Whether likely-outmatched front offices and managers consider this potentially quixotic challenge enough of an incentive to risk injury and deny key players a Bundesliga-esque midseason break remains to be seen. Rarely is someone in MLS fired for sporting reasons other than a sustained failure to qualify for the ever-expanding playoff field.

While the New York Red Bulls have seemingly placed a priority on the Champions League, the club’s recent history with tertiary competitions could be considered complicated at best. The first post-stadium era manager, Hans Backe, made the controversial decision to bring a threadbare roster to Chicago for a quarterfinal match in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Traveling with the reserves and less than a full bench, the Red Bulls lost 4-0. The next season, a stronger lineup would fall in the fourth round to the Harrisburg City Islanders.

In 2014, Mike Petke shared his thoughts pertaining to ownership’s opinion on lesser cup competitions. “I can tell you right now, if we win the Open Cup, I don’t even know if I’d get recognition from Austria because they just don’t understand it,” the former manager told Kristian Dyer. “Know what I mean? So that’s where I have to sometimes separate myself and realize, ‘What’s my job title? What’s my job description?’”

Claiming that Red Bull did not understand the concept of domestic cup competitions was a curious tact for the manager who would hold the position for 207 more days. At that point, Salzburg was the reigning Austrian Cup champions. The club has since won eight times. Additionally, Leipzig claimed the regional Saxony Cup in 2011 and 2013. Petke’s comments would later be walked back, although the general dismissive sentiment toward non-league play appeared to linger.

His successor, Jesse Marsch, mastered the art of competing on multiple fronts. Under his stewardship, the Red Bulls made deep runs in both the Open Cup and Champions League, while also maintaining a spot in the playoff race. Recent seasons have yet to create such a challenge, whether by coronavirus cancellations or failure to qualify due to ineptitude. The current roster built around youthful energy should, in theory, withstand a demanding schedule and the compact nature of an isolated tournament.

Many clubs use cup competitions as an opportunity to showcase youth talent, saving higher-value players for the more consequential league fixtures. For the Red Bulls, that is every match. Perhaps there will be a new reality in 2023, as the alluded to five-year plan should be four-fifths of the way complete, encroaching upon the promised self-sustaining cyclical dominance in which the sale of today’s young stars fund the acquisition of the prospects of tomorrow.

The apostrophe-free Leagues Cup is coming, with or without the approval of the players. A gaudy monstrosity that Liberace would ask to tone down will attempt to stake a claim in the soccer calendar and the North American sporting landscape. How the Red Bulls choose to embrace this competition is a question for the future, far enough away that the answer may come from wholly different personnel.