Midweek press conferences are often a venue to chew on club minutiae — injuries, contracts, babies being born, all the fun stuff — outside the immediate urgency of a match. But when asked a question on Tuesday about the status of recent Navy pro sports waiver recipient Matthew Nocita, his team’s first round college draft pick earlier this year, Gerhard Struber was laser-focused on his current players ahead of Thursday’s game against Atlanta.
“This is not a topic for me right now,” said the Austrian whose New York Red Bulls team has started to hit its stride in his second full year on the touchline.
“I think with this season and what we have ahead of us, my mind is only on the players I have right now.”
Leaving aside that Struber is often more than happy to discuss not only players deeper down the roster but hypothetical players he says he needs, his answer paints the picture of a manager increasingly immersed in a New York project that appears close to its payoff. After a turbulent run since last summer where injury crises, scoring droughts, front office upheaval, and job offers from overseas clubs have threatened to take Struber’s eyes off the horizon in New York, the 45-year-old has never seemed more focused on success in America, the country where (after just under two years) he’s now managed longer than any other in his young career.
Halfway through the season after 17 league matches, Struber has the Red Bulls three points off conference leaders Philadelphia. While Sunday’s 2-0 loss against LAFC derailed the possibility of a perfect week after a 3-0 derby win over NYCFC to advance to the Open Cup semifinals, Struber spoke with a sense of destiny about a team he’s never seemed more committed to.
“I am very, very happy,” Struber said when asked for his assessment of the first half of the season. “I think there is an opportunity to be more consistent in away games, the results in those need to be better. But obviously we are doing much better at home.”
“I think, of course, we are in a process here but it’s also important at the same time through that process to have output and have results and our output in points so far this year is good. Our work in the Open Cup is of big value and we are in a good spot in the league for playoffs.”
“I’m very pleased to see how new players have integrated and that there is a clear signature in our style of play. I think we show last week in the derby against City that we can win games on that level. We can beat any team in this league.”
While Thursday night’s opponents Atlanta are not exactly among the league’s elite this season, Struber still framed the game as a chance for his team to build their growing reputation going into the season’s second half.
“I think it’s another good opportunity to beat a possession team. At the same time Atlanta is a team that can be very strong in transition moments and we have to be careful and keep our discipline and focus.”
But Struber’s attempt to maintain New York’s resurgent home form appears likely to be hindered yet again by the league’s covid protocols. After a month where starters Patryk Klimala, Lewis Morgan, Cristian Cásseres and John Tolkin have each been held out of matches due to positive covid tests, this week Struber is dealing with similar situations regarding captain Aaron Long and talismanic attacker Luquinhas, who were both held out of the LAFC loss over the weekend.
Struber remarked that Long’s situation is more likely to be resolved than the one involving Luquinhas, who is still quarantining in California and awaiting approval to cross the country and rejoin the team. He went on to make what appears to be the opening salvo from a frustrated coach in what will likely be a contentious review of league health and safety protocols over the coming months as the pandemic slowly eases.
“My patience for covid is ending. The players we have had these situations with, they maybe have a little bit of a runny nose but nothing else. I think it’s time to look at these topics and maybe we should think about an update on some of these rules.”
But in the meantime, his Red Bulls team will respect current procedure and attempt to have another good performance without their two most important pieces, as Struber and defender John Tolkin said the team was able to do against LAFC despite not securing the result. Ahead of a pivotal home stretch of the season that seems likely to determine the fate of the current Red Bulls project and Struber’s nascent managerial career, there is no choice but to stay focused.