It is never wise to start a season under controversy. Football campaigns can be terribly long exercises and anytime a team starts a season with a town hall to help quell the anger of the supporters.
Normally when situations like these occur only single digit wins and there is a mass exodus of supporters from stands. Somehow, some way the New York Red Bulls have defied this trend and find themselves in the thick of the Major League Soccer title hunt.
The comeback story of the plucky underdog defying the odds is a nice story but it is a story that is unfamiliar to New York Red Bulls supporters. One of the original teams in Major League Soccer, the Red Bulls have long been considered to be one of the major name teams in the league.
Players like Tim Howard, Lothar Matthaus, Claudio Reyna, Roberto Donadoni, Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Juninho, and Michael Bradley have all laced their boots for either the Red Bulls or the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, the predecessor to the Red Bulls. It is a team who though are based in New Jersey were considered to be the soccer team of the Big Apple.
Yet for all of the high expectations the club only has one major title in their trophy case: a 2013 Supporters Shield. Although the Red Bulls were unable to achieve the true prize in MLS, the MLS Cup, winning that trophy helped erase many years of disappointment.
So one can imagine the feelings of supporters this off-season when Red Bulls management announced that coach Mike Petke, a former MetroStar who led the club to the title, would not be coming back for a third season. The departure of Henry and Cahill and the club’s continued failure to land a “name” player did not help the situation.
All of these things, coupled with a disastrous town hall in January with Red Bulls supporters, led many to believe that the club was going down. The announcement that the club had created a USL Pro side and that they had brought in United States Men’s National Team midfielder Sacha Kljestan did not seem to satisfy the angry supporters.
Persistent rumors that Red Bull management (who own Red Bull Leipzig) were considering selling the franchise and the ugly specter of having to compete in their market with expansion New York City Football Club (who did sign Frank Lampard and David Villa) did not help.
For those wondering if U.S. Soccer had passionate supporters that will be brutally honest to team officials please watch exhibit A:
New Sporting Director Ali Curtis and head coach Jesse Marsch were put in a no-win situation. Curtis, who was on a one year contract, had to somehow right a sinking ship on a one year contract.
Marsch meanwhile came to Harrison, New Jersey after a very unsuccessful campaign with the Montreal Impact. Supporters in the New York/New Jersey typically do not take losing well so how would the two do in getting out of this difficult spot, especially without Henry and Cahill?
The answer was a different one for the Red Bulls from season’s past. Rather than spending on a big, flashy free agent the club went small. Aside from Kljestan most of the players that the Red Bulls picked up were on trials, were picked up under the radar, or youth academy players.
Players like defender Kemar Lawrence (19 starts,) midfielder Mike Grella (seven goals,) and forward Anatole Abang (four goals) have all been plucked from relative obscurity and found themselves as regulars for Marsch.
Young players like defenders Matt Miazga (22 starts) and, prior to his injury, Chris Duvall (14 starts) have also stepped up and made the jump to full-time players.
There has also been a change in attitude with the side. In the club’s 2-0 victory over D.C. United back in March it was interesting to see them play so much more relaxed.
Comparing this match with their previous encounter with D.C. United in the 2014 MLS Eastern Conference Semi-finals there was a change in tempo and in pace.
Without Henry and Cahill the club moved much faster and played more like a unit. Midfielders Dax McCarty and Felipe seemed to work more like partners in the midfield rather than having a diminutive Frenchman dictating the match at half speed.
Even players like Lloyd Sam (7 goals, 6 assists) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (14 goals, 7 assists,) who had exceptional 2014 campaigns, have become more integral parts of the squad.
This change in approach, from trying to land the biggest fish in the transfer window pond to improved scouting and youth development, has paid immediate dividends.
With under a month to play in the MLS regular season the Red Bulls find themselves at the top of the pack of the Eastern Conference (14-8-6, 48 points) and tied with the Vancouver Whitecaps (15-11-3, 48 points) for the lead in the Supporters Shield.
Furthermore, the club’s USL side, Red Bulls II, the team that Curtis was excoriated for during the town hall meeting have also qualified USL playoffs a feat only accomplished by two other MLS-based sides.
But the real test for the Red Bulls comes in November when the team will look to erase two decades of missed opportunities by claiming their first MLS Cup.
For as much as the summer of good feelings helped change many of the preconceptions of Red Bulls supporters about the Curtis/Marsch regime an early exit would bring back the anger and the vitriol of January.
Perhaps expectations are a bit high but given the quality of football being played at Red Bull Arena it is hard not to at least dream that the team who survived hell early can find glory at the end of their campaign.