All good things must come to an end, and whether or not you consider the MLS regular season to be a good thing, it’s still coming to an end. With the conclusion of the 2022 season comes the end of the league’s media contracts, and the beginning of a lucrative 10-year deal with Apple for exclusive broadcasting rights. It’s a huge, $250 million deal for the league (although its translation to the clubs is unclear) that may or may not actually be a financial improvement on the current ones, but unfortunately means the end of local broadcasts. For Red Bulls fans, this means the end of MSG Networks’ star duo of hugely influential former goalkeeper Shep Messing and New Jersey Devils loanee Steve Cangialosi. The pair have commentated New York’s matches for more than 20 years, and although their work has garnered mixed opinions from fans, they’re still staples in Red Bulls lore and will be sorely missed. Their personal knowledge and affinity towards their local team is something that can’t be replaced by national broadcasters who will likely be assigned Red Bulls games by chance and not have the familiarity that the MSG crew have, and this local perspective is something that will be lost throughout as the league becomes more globalized through the Apple deal.
As MLS’ reach expands, it loses the homeliness and personality that makes following a domestic league special. While it’s good news for those who want to see the country’s sporting culture grow and succeed, it’s a disappointment similar to when your favorite underground musician hits the mainstream. Gone is the authenticity and personal setups, as it’s commodified and made into a package ready to be distributed. Lovable quirks like odd kickoff times will fall victim to strict, synchronized time slots that make whiparound shows more feasible. No longer will you see the same “Red Bulls Bedroom” advertisement three separate times during halftime, or hear Shep Messing’s completely unprompted Pele namedrops, only quick recaps of what’s going on in the rest of the league and general discussion. While these changes will surely benefit the league in the long run, the sad reality of improvement at the cost of soul is as disheartening as it gets.
Oh, there’s also a game this week. If only there were somewhere you could read about that.
One of the most anticipated days of the season has finally arrived, as the Red Bulls play MLS newcomers Charlotte FC on what promises to be an eventful Decision Day. It’s been a wild ride for New York throughout the season, and while optimism across the fanbase varies, most will be grateful that New York have little to worry about on the final day of the season. Having clinched playoff soccer weeks ago, the team competes only in hopes of securing home-field advantage in their first playoff match, a traditional advantage that considering the team’s baffling home form may not even be the best scenario. The team is largely in control of their own destiny, able to assure a home playoff spot with a win, and able to hope for results elsewhere if things go sour. In their path is a Charlotte FC that, while already eliminated from postseason contention, will still be playing with pride and hoping to play spoiler to the Red Bulls’ dreams.
Charlotte have had anything but a normal debut season, with conflict engulfing the club early in the season as inaugural head coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez reportedly entered a dispute with an unnamed Designated Player that ended in Miguel Ángel Ramírez losing his job 14 games into a promising season. Then-assistant coach Christian Lattanzio was promoted to interim head coach, and despite a rocky summer he managed to guide them within inches of playoff soccer. It would have been a remarkable feat for the organization, who’ve largely figured things out on the fly this year, but unfortunately were eliminated after a 2-2 draw against the Columbus Crew last Wednesday. Management has been impressed nonetheless, with Lattanzio understood to be negotiating a deal to become the permanent head coach. It’s not at all expected of expansion teams, especially those that start from scratch as Charlotte have, to make the playoffs or even look like a good team in their first year, but Charlotte have almost done both and will certainly be a team to watch in 2023, with their rabid fanbase sure to inspire a highly promising team.
Charlotte’s struggles throughout the year have largely been offensive. There was an overemphasis on wide play for much of the year, with the 4-1-3-2/4-1-4-1 that Miguel Ángel Ramírez, and briefly Christian Lattanzio, played relying too much on the ability of their wingers to take on defenders one-on-one and beat them to put a cross in. The result was far too little touches in the attacking third, strikers were simply not getting the ball close enough to the goal to do anything with it, and opposing goalkeepers found themselves with little to do. Charlotte scored a woeful .93 goals per game in the team’s first 14 matches under Miguel Ángel Ramírez, and advanced metrics showed little signs that they should have scored more. However Lattanzio’s hire steadied the ship, and as the former NYCFC assistant steered the team away from the wing-only strategy, the team started scoring more, jumping to 1.53 goals per game in the 19 games Lattanzio has managed.
Statistically Charlotte are a rather average team, with the improved offense still offset by their mediocre defensive record. However the team has played with heart and spirit the entire year, and show no signs of ending their season without a fight. This may worry some Red Bulls fans who were hoping for an easy team to get 3 points against, but on paper the Red Bulls are still the better team. The question throughout the year for New York has not been the talent, but the success of the famed high-pressure system week to week, and the mental response from players when the system hasn’t worked as well as hoped. For every 4-3 win against Austin there’s a late 2-1 collapse against Columbus, as the Red Bulls have looked like entirely different teams on different days. The Red Bulls will want to end the regular season on a high note if they want to perform in knockout action, so a strong start and performance against Charlotte will be crucial in seeing how far the team can go in the postseason.
Most likely to get a mullet - Ben Bender
Pray this never happens, but the young man seems like he’d commit the mortal error of sacrificing those beautiful locks for a 90s throwback. We’ve already lost Caden Clark.
Most likely to be an English teacher in another life - Karol Swiderski
The Polish striker seems mild-mannered and studious, perhaps able to get through convincing teenagers that Hamlet is a good play.
Most likely to get driven to practice - Brian Romero
The 16-year-old made headlines after his debut in a friendly against Chelsea earlier in the year, and probably had school the next day.
Most likely to steal your girl - Christian Lattanzio
His Twitter usage is endearingly limited, but that profile picture…
Honorable mention - Ben Bender
New York Red Bulls (3-4-3): Coronel, Long, S. Nealis, Reyes, Tolkin, Amaya, Edelman, D. Nealis, Luquinhas, Klimala, Morgan
Charlotte FC (4-2-3-1): Kahlina, Afful, Walkes, Malanda, Bryne, Bronico, Jones, Vargas, Swiderski, Jozwiak, Rios
Players to Watch
Daniel Rios has never really impressed throughout his career, while certainly an able-bodied professional he’s never really impressed in the Mexican lower divisions or USL. Charlotte acquired the striker from Nashville in February, and had an average season with 14 starts and 2 goals to show for it. So to say his 4 goal outburst against Philadelphia last week was a surprise would be an understatement.
Philadelphia’s defense was awful and the lone performance is not at all indicative of Rios’ ability, but there are few things better for a striker than confidence, and his confidence would be sky-high after such an electrifying night. He continued his form against the Columbus Crew in Charlotte’s midweek match, coming off the bench and scoring after 12 minutes. While Charlotte were unfortunately eliminated from the playoffs and technically have nothing to play for, Rios is undeniably on a hot streak and seems the most fit to play antihero at Red Bulls Arena.
The Brazilian goalkeeper was a revelation in his debut 2021 season, arguably a snub for MLS goalkeeper of the year, and while he hasn’t hit the same heights in 2022 he’s still been one of the most consistent performers in the squad, and one of the most important figures on the team sheet. His shot-stopping is incredible, seemingly making a staggering, highlight-reel 1 on 1 save every game to keep the Red Bulls competitive. He’s bailed out the defense on countless occasions, and while his positioning and distribution leave something to be desired, the team would be far worse without the Brazilian coming up big when it matters. Charlotte FC have struggled to get shots off throughout the entire season, but curiously have one of the higher shot/shot on target percentages (36.1%) in the entire league. This, combined with the Red Bulls’ affinity for shutting teams out an entire match and randomly allowing a huge chance, will almost certainly make for heart-stopping viewing on Sunday. Carlos Coronel Jr. will be called upon at least once in the match, and his reply will likely define how the game finishes.
In a strange matchup where the Red Bulls have something, but also nothing, to play for, the team should come out on top to a joyous Red Bull Arena. 1-0 Red Bull win.