After a come-from-behind 2-1 win over New England Revolution last night, the New York Red Bulls have all but qualified for their 13th straight MLS playoffs. OaM managing editor Ben Cork breaks down a couple or three things about what the playoff streak and the way the Red Bulls have gotten there means.
13th straight playoff berth is not an accident
As Gerhard Struber said last night, “the devil must come” for the Red Bulls to miss the playoffs at this point. I suppose in the event that New York loses the rest of their games while New England and Miami win all of theirs by wide margins, we would want to scan around to see if the antichrist walks among us. My bet is on OaM Oakland bureau chief Juan “Profe” Mesa.
But in the meantime, American soccer will have to come to grips with the Red Bulls being the league’s most consistently competitive club. 13 years in a row now the Red Bulls have qualified for the playoffs. Even complete misfires of seasons — Hans Backe’s scheduling oversights in 2011, the Chris Armas malaise of 2019, Gerhard Struber’s awkward start in 2021 — have ended with New York roughly in the league’s top half. In a decade when basically every other club in the league (yes, except Seattle) has endured morale-crushing years in the league basement, the Red Bulls have always been right outside the league’s elite at worst.
It’s a record that thoroughly defies the predominant premise in much national and local media that the Red Bulls are some hapless calamity club. As new sporting executive Jochen Schneider said last month in rebuffing a question about New York’s supposed starvation for success, the idea that making postseason every year and winning the Supporters Shield three times in a decade is letting the fanbase down is not valid.
Gameday tactical gambits, refereeing calls, penalty shootouts, and poorly-timed nose bleeds determine who wins MLS Cup. Sound planning and well-constructed squads determine who stays near the top of the league year in, year out. It’s a case that’s often struggled to get a fair hearing in the visceral, attention-hungry climate of New York sports culture, but this is a club worth having pride in rather than pretending it’s Major League on loop.
Strikers still not the scoring focus
When he first joined the Red Bulls at the transfer deadline last month, it wasn’t entirely clear what position mysterious Brazilian youngster Elias Manoel was being signed for. But after three starts now at the top of the formation, it’s clear he’s seen by Gerhard Struber as a center forward — and like the previous striker brought in to understudy and compete with Patryk Klimala, he’s not having an easier time finding the net than the much-maligned Polish designated player.
The stocky and quick Elias has been lively and had some decent looks against New England last night — a looped header in the opening minutes forced a save from Djordje Petrovic and a missed attempt to curl one in from the edge of the box just before the half. But even as New York has stepped back into good form over recent weeks, the team still doesn’t play in a way that serves up free chances in the box for the striker. Though attacking midfield play has been strong through Lewis Morgan’s goals and the tenacious dribbles of Luquinhas, neither player provides a great deal in terms of creative combination. Though the team’s attacks are often funneled through wingbacks especially since the return of Kyle Duncan, rarely do these wide overloads result in dangerous crosses.
Mind you, this isn’t really a problem — soccer is the ultimate team sport. There’s no rule that says that goals scored by non-strikers count for less points. Just because the striker begins an attack as the closest player to goal doesn’t always mean he’s in the best position to score — especially in a system that plays pushed up the field with forwards having to run wide to find space and the ball. Considering the team as a whole still scores enough to be in contention, all of this should be more interesting than alarming.
Not to repeat a point from earlier in the column, but maybe “Red Bulls players are hopeless crap” is a reductive and inaccurate portrayal of the situation.
Setting a high bar for City
After a humiliating late summer, Gerhard Struber is striking a more confident tone again in recent weeks, peaking last night after the win over New England.
Previewing next weekend’s New York Derby against NYCFC, Gerhard Struber snidely referred to the opponents as “City Group” multiple times as he said it was “crystal clear” that the Red Bulls will win a match that he says will determine not only bragging rights across the Tri-State Area, but the progress of both teams’ sporting projects.
Struber has never been one for subtlety, but guaranteeing a late season derby win with playoff implications is a whole new frontier. It’s the sort of statement that can burnish a legend…or leave it punctured.