Last year, after a loss in Montreal left his New York Red Bulls team well outside the playoff picture, Gerhard Struber had no choice but to talk about the future.
In his first season managing in America, Struber ran into a merciless summer injury crisis that became a near-fatal slump. Already facing the uphill battle of winning while developing the young team being assembled by now-departed sporting chief Kevin Thelwell, Struber had seen a flurry of defensive injuries leave him with a threadbare squad that he admitted was not capable of competing for trophies yet even if they managed to recover in time to make the playoffs.
“I cannot remember the last time we speak about the supporters shield or other dreams,” said the forlorn Struber after a late penalty sunk his team at Stade Saputo.
“But I think with smart decisions in the next transfer windows, we can be a team that can make the dream into a goal. Then maybe we can speak about that.”
Struber’s team did eventually achieve their modest 2021 goal of making the playoffs while turning over the roster. One offseason later, with the Red Bulls flying high heading into this weekend’s matchup with Philadelphia Union, the top of Major League Soccer seems far more real than a mere dream for Struber. New York sits five points off of Supporters Shield leaders Los Angeles FC and second in the Eastern Conference, with the ability to leapfrog Philadelphia into first place with a win in Chester on Saturday.
Though Struber’s team is still dealing with the paradox of not having won a home game yet this season, New York’s perfect road form — seven wins out of seven away matches in all competitions — has them on the verge of contender status heading into the summer. While the chance to make MLS statistical history through winning their sixth consecutive away match to start a season is grabbing headlines, Struber’s team is quickly becoming a team with the potential for much more concrete success. Having further evolved his squad over the winter with the additions of Lewis Morgan and Luquinhas as well as overseen the resurgence of figures like Aaron Long and Frankie Amaya, Struber now strikes a strong contrast to his far-sighted mindset in that Montreal press conference last August.
Gone is the focus on future transfer windows and (though still occasionally present) his emphasis on process and the need for his young team to find “learning moments” has lessened. He has expressed confidence over recent weeks in a 2022 squad that has become sharper by the game and looks to be one of the league’s top sides if the home form evens out. New York’s 3-0 dismantling of rivals DC United in the Open Cup on Tuesday was marked by contributions from the bottom end of the roster, with backup goalie Ryan Meara notching a clean sheet, Daniel Edelman directing midfield traffic in his first senior start, and Zach Ryan nicking the game’s final goal off an assist from exiled winger Cameron Harper.
“Right now, you can see a team is not 11 or 18 players — a team is 20 or 25 players, especially in a situation like that with so many games in a row,” said Struber after the DC win.
“I think it is important that we have to use all the players that are available and I think all the new faces on the field today show me, yeah, they are talents.”
In contrast to last season, when Struber’s depth options included misfits for his demanding tactical system like Amro Tarek and Brian White and new additions struggling to meet fitness standards like Amaya and Dru Yearwood, the Red Bulls are now almost entirely overhauled from when the Austrian took over in late 2020. After briefly expressing dismay with the state of his squad on the eve of the season, Struber has since declined to discuss transfers. He said in April that “there is absolutely no stress to do something in the transfer market” as his slightly-older but still young side increasingly gels with thrilling results.
Hard as it may be to believe through the social constraints of the pandemic, Struber has been in New York for almost two years now — easily the longest tenure of his young managerial career. With rumors connecting him to jobs in Europe popping up on a more and more regular basis, the chance for Struber to leave a legacy with the Red Bulls will approach quickly if he and his team can pass Saturday’s stern test.
Struber sees in his opponent this weekend a model for improving his New York team further. Philadelphia have entrenched themselves near the top of the Eastern Conference since the arrival of like-minded Red Bull executive Ernst Tanner as sporting director in 2018. Winning the Supporters Shield in 2020 and eliminating the Red Bulls from the playoffs last year, Struber said this week that Philadelphia was a challenge he relishes from both a tactical and strategic side.
“I always love to play against Philadelphia, we are not always successful against them, but games against Philadelphia, let us grow, let us develop in a good direction. They are maybe one or two steps ahead of where (Red Bulls) are, with their group together longer.”
Struber said Thursday that with both teams pursuing such similar high-pressing tactics, the game will be a good, clean contest of which team can stay focused and organized over the entire 90 minutes. He also remarked that the presence of both clubs near the top of MLS is a vindication of the footballing identity shared by the two clubs.
“This is modern football. We know that (the Red Bull footballing strategy) is a style of play that is making a big difference in big leagues in Europe. We see all the time now that proactive football is successful.”
“Right now with the whole Eastern Conference table so close, this style helps us push. There is no time to rest, we have to go to the limit in every game.”
Despite his admiration for Philadelphia’s similar ethos and shorter distance between their dreams and goals, Struber nonetheless expressed confidence that Saturday will be the day his team finally triumphs over their cousinly neighbors.
“They show us always some gaps what we have to improve and I hope the gaps on Saturday are not so big, and my boys are ready, brave with a good match plan and hopefully in a good fitness situation and then I think we have a good chance also to create in Philadelphia, a very good performance.”
Such a performance would undoubtedly be a landmark in Struber’s quest to turn the dream of trophies with the Red Bulls into a concrete goal. If his New York team achieves it on Saturday, the 45-year-old Austrian will no longer have to emphasize the future when discussing his objectives in the job. For a club and fanbase that’s gone to bed hoping for a sunnier tomorrow ever since Jesse Marsch’s empire crumbled, 2022 will finally be the real thing.