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Playoff exit reminds the Red Bulls that it’s still 2022 in all the worst ways

2-1 collapse against Cincinnati involved all the team’s most troublesome themes of a strange season

FC Cincinnati v New York Red Bulls Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

All in all, the 2-1 playoff loss to FC Cincinnati on Saturday was a microcosm of seemingly everything about the New York Red Bulls in 2022, making it a fairly on-the-nose ending to the season. Other than the early kickoff time, very little of we saw on Saturday morning in Harrison was new. Gerhard Struber’s team played all the hits from the most recent set list, with a particular encore performance from the manager post-game.

There was more tinkering from Gerhard Struber, who chose the playoffs as the moment to experiment with 6’2” center back Andres Reyes as a fullback. As I commented about in recent games, Reyes has been fitting well as something of a false right back as part of a back three featuring Dylan Nealis or Kyle Duncan as an advanced wide attacker — but Saturday was something entirely different. Seemingly a cynical defensive gambit to counter Cincinnati’s attacking fullback Alvaro Barreal, Reyes charged up and down the right side for New York. The athletic Colombian worked hard but was clearly unfamiliar with the demands of the position, shown most notably in a first half cross attempt that went well behind Cincinnati’s goal. While some tidy passing combination happened for New York in the first half, the awkwardness of a gangly center back combining out wide blunted the right side of the team’s approaches. At no point in 2022 has a specific group of personnel been allowed to gel, blunting the team with blatantly unrehearsed attacking play.

There was yet another stunning Lewis Morgan goal that (momentarily) papered over such a flat attacking performance. The Scotsman, who was the team’s leading scorer and player of the year by acclimation, smacked a shot from outside the corner of the penalty area past Roman Celentano to give New York a fleeting lead. Unfortunately Morgan was substituted in the afterglow of the goal with a nagging groin pull, an event that belongs perhaps more to the cursed spirit of more long-term Red Bulls playoff struggles rather than the 2022 season alone.

But the microcosm of 2022 — and particularly the team’s malaise in the second half of the season — continued when a lead slipped away from the Red Bulls late as the team’s all-or-nothing pressing system inevitably tired from the perfection Gerhard Struber expects — an expectation that by the point of the year seems to be an unrealistic one if the team is to grind out results. Struber pinpointed “individual mistakes” as the source of the goals, a diagnosis that would be more digestible if it wasn’t one that’s been repeated and seemingly not improved upon since the team’s most high profile collapses from winning positions this year against Orlando, Colorado, and most recently Columbus two weeks ago.

Which brings us to the now-somewhat infamous press conference Struber gave on Saturday following the loss in which he went on an unprompted tangent about people he called “Twitter experts” who refused to see that the Red Bulls were not capable of winning in 2022. This flourish was also unfortunately a repeat of Struber’s messaging through the course of the season, one in which he was largely free to operate without the oversight of a sporting executive following the acrimonious exit of Kevin Thelwell to Everton in February. Struber has lamented his squad’s youth since the beginning of the season — often in unflattering terms that defy his advertised (often self-advertised) status as a youth development guru. Struber has also already taken time out of multiple press conferences over the course of the season’s second half to complain about the relatively mild fan and media criticism he’s received as the team’s form dipped.

But what was new about Struber’s comments on Saturday was an exasperated reaction from many fans seeing a team that had finished 4th in the conference, 6th in the league, and the semifinals of the Open Cup being described as hopeless in a fashion that often seems rather self-serving for Struber, a manager who is not only less experienced in his job than most of his players, but is also fairly open about his ambitions to climb the career ladder and take a “next step” away from New York in the near future. It’s especially galling when Struber’s most recent previous press conference involved him making a point of calling out the team’s doubters in national media from the beginning of the year…when Struber himself was avidly downplaying the team’s expectations.

Whoever Struber thinks these powerful “Twitter experts” are — Matt Doyle? Benjamin Cork? The MLS Images That Preceded Unfortunate Events account? — it seems like a rather petty and irrelevant deflection from a season which began with great promise but ended poorly on his watch. Major League Soccer is an unusual and often difficult league to navigate, but success should be well within the reach of a manager as highly-regarded (and expensive) as Struber in his second season — especially considering the bar set by Jesse Marsch in winning the Supporters Shield in his first season. The Red Bulls won only 6 of their last 17 competitive matches of 2022 as Struber approached his two-year anniversary, with the season’s final month clocking in with a particularly poor 4 losses out of the last 6.

It’s this point that allows me to slip into a hazmat suit and address the notorious graveyard of all New York Red Bulls discourse — poor attendance. Saturday’s playoff game was almost certainly the worst attended home playoff game of the Red Bull Arena era, with the skeleton of the club’s die hard season ticket holders visible but seemingly few others filling seats in Harrison.

I generally don’t consider the attendance issue important or downstream of any concrete club decisions enough to maintain a comic list of all of them, but the reasons for the team’s inconsistent attendance are well known by now. But for the purposes of analyzing this particular crowd on Saturday, there are a few extras. The club had only five days to sell tickets to a game on a fall Saturday with an inconvenient noon kickoff. MLS has come a long way, but competing with youth soccer tournaments, college football and numerous other previously-scheduled events on the day is always going to be an uphill battle. Indeed the team had much better crowds on various nights earlier in the season.

One of those games was the league derby loss to New York City FC in July that unofficially began the team’s late season dip in form. Between being swept in the league derby matches, the team’s inconsistent home form that lagged behind performances on the road, a squad core obscured by constant tinkering and rotation, and the manager consistently telling fans better things aren’t possible — it was difficult to generate any enthusiasm for this playoff run. If the 2022 New York Red Bulls were a university experiment in devising the most underwhelming 4th place team of all time, it succeeded with flying colors.

In some ways the flat lead-up to the match against Cincinnati almost seemed to signal that this could be the year the Red Bulls would inexplicably make a run for the Cup, a reversal from the rampaging Shield seasons that ended so anticlimactically. But unfortunately for the Red Bulls, their playoff performance in 2022 reeked of many of the same issues that dragged down the rest of the season.