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A Couple Or Three Things: late march past Atlanta sends Red Bulls to the top

Serge Ngoma is the newest prodigy in a team that’s learning how to grind

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York Red Bulls
Serge Ngoma wheels past Atlanta goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo after his winner last night.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United have still never won in Harrison thanks to a late New York Red Bulls comeback to secure a 2-1 win that will likely be remembered for some time. As Gerhard Struber’s team settles into a three-way tie at the top of the Eastern Conference, OaM editor Ben Cork tells ya a couple or three things about what last night’s result meant.

This team doesn’t quit

Especially given the demanding physicality of the team’s tactics, the sweat brought on by a muggy June evening, and the gut punch of a Josef Martinez goal with twenty minutes left, Thursday’s game would have been an obvious one for the Red Bulls to fold in.

But as Lewis Morgan said postgame, this team believes in itself and knows how resilient it is. The win over Atlanta marks the team’s second comeback victory of 2022, the first when a Patryk Klimala brace secured three points in Chicago after a bizarre rain delay. In contrast to last year where similar weather postponements and an injury crisis had the team limping through the summer months, the 2022 version of the Red Bulls relishes uncomfortable circumstances.

Even on a tactical level the team recovered from a confusing opening stage of the match. Atlanta’s use of an atypical 3-in-the-back formation threw Gerhard Struber’s gameplan out of sync, but the Austrian manager effusively applauded his players at several points in the game’s opening minutes for their high energy level despite the disconnect. Struber has spoken about the willingness to suffer for a result, and has now created one of the most dangerous types of teams — one that doesn’t want games to be easy for anybody involved.

The pipeline is flowing better than ever before

Remember the name,” as was once said about another 16-year-old whose first senior goal was stunning match winner. Serge Ngoma is your new favorite player — and you’ve had a lot of them this year if you’re a Red Bulls fan.

Ngoma’s splash onto the scene last night comes on the heels of Players Development Academy-turned-Red Bull recruit Daniel Edelman’s increasing minutes, the eye-catching derby debut of Ugandan teen Steven Sserwadda, and academy prodigy John Tolkin’s entrenchment as a first team starter. The pipes of development are rushing enough that teenagers Caden Clark and Wikelman Carmona — both hindered by injury and absences for international duty this year — are relative veterans, already enduring and learning from their first career setbacks.

It’s a fitting outcome for a club whose substructure has been thoroughly revitalized over the last three years since the arrivals of academy director Sean McCafferty and now-former head of sport Kevin Thelwell. After an awkward post-Tyler Adams period where the club filled out the bottom of the squad with college draft picks who struggled to meet the standard, the duo’s compression of age groups (including the Red Bulls II USL team) and expansion of the Red Bulls’ affiliate network with other local clubs has already started to bear fruit over the course of 2022.

There is finally a conveyer belt of youth talent again in New York, with Gerhard Struber at the top of the pyramid. The first team head coach who Thelwell hired for “living, eating, and breathing the process” remarked after Thursday’s win that he is willing to trust young players and that he is emboldened by their mistakes and inconsistency that often scare other managers. Ngoma’s fearless performance on Thursday is one of the rewards that Struber understands young players can provide.

As I remarked after last week‘s derby win, the club has been remade in its previous image — and perhaps, in time, an even more powerful one than ever seen in the Red Bull Arena era.