|photo by Matt Kremkau
CHESTER, PA - And so, just like that, the New York Red Bulls season came to a sudden and painful end. But, before we get to that point. Let's talk about how we got here and, afterward, where they are going.
The 2021 season began with, let's say, some trepidation among
the fanbase. There was some considerable turnover. Fifteen new players arrived
in an aborted training camp because of the COVID-19 pandemic that raged
unabated worldwide, prompting the team and the league to adopt stringent
Gerhard Struber was brought in from Barnsley of the English
Premier League to lead a group of young but largely unknown players in a market
that demands star power, especially if your team's nickname has the words "New
York" in front of it.
Because of this, the various pundits and experts gave the
team a low chance of having a successful season, let alone making the playoffs
at all. With such an unproven foreign coach and the low-wattage talent assembled,
who could blame them? The season took a defining hit when their star center back
and USMNT player Aaron Long went down with Achillies' injury that took him out
for the season.
The team underperformed. The Red Bulls were considered dead
in the water with 12 matches left in the season until a galling 2-1 loss in
Columbus forced everyone to take a hard look in the mirror. But then, something
happened. The streak began.
The Red Bulls earned the seventh and final seed of the 2021
MLS Cup Playoffs the hard way. By treating every single remaining match as if
it was a playoff match. The way they saw it, it was "do or die." The
supporters demanded that their team step things up, not to take the season,
already regarded as a rebuilding year, lying down.
And step up, they did. Picking up 25 points in their last 12
matches to secure that final playoff spot was the most points earned by any
Eastern Conference playoff team in the season's final games. They stunned experts
that had penciled them finished at the bottom of the table, their defense
leading the way, starting with goalkeeper Carlos Coronel, who finished the
season with 13 clean sheets.
Despite the accomplishments, they were a team that was often
overlooked. The New York Red Bulls have made the playoffs in 12 consecutive
seasons and 22 out of 26 overall in franchise history. Three Supporters Shields
in five years. All of that success has been marred because of one glaring
omission - No championship trophy to show for it.
So, when they arrived at Subaru Park, they were looking to
not only advance to the next round but to prove the doubters wrong that they were
"Ready to take the next step," said head coach Gerhard Struber. He felt
very confident that his squad would win the day against an opponent that
mirrored the Red Bulls brought to the table. Despite expecting a tough battle
throughout, the message was clear: Survive and advance.
In addition, team captain and midfielder Sean Davis also has
been back and forth from New Jersey to a Manhattan hospital to be with his
parents. Both of them have been battling cancer throughout the past year.
"Honestly, I think I've spent more time at Weill
Cornell [Hostpital] on the Upper East Side than at Red Bull Arena this year,"
speaking publicly for the first time about his parents' battle. With the team
and the supporters giving Sean all the support he'll even need, he was more
than ready to take on the challenge that awaited them on Saturday afternoon
with the Union.
The match, in particular, was tight, tense as expected. And
after 90 minutes and a few opportunities that came close, but none were able to
capitalize, the teams were locked in a deadlocked, scoreless stalemate. But then
came the drama of overtime. The Red Bulls had three chances to grab a lead in
the extra session, one in the 94th minute as Patryk Klimala took the
ball on a break down the field where only Union goalkeeper Andre Blake stood in
his way, and he made the save to keep the match scoreless. The other opportunity,
his shot went wide to his left.
In the 112th minute, defender Kyle Duncan had an
open look and took his chance, sending a blistering low shot near the left post,
but it glanced off the post, much to the dismay of his teammates and the
traveling supporters, realizing just how close they came to scoring that much-needed
goal. The Union began to press hard at
the New York defense but were denied thanks to a fantastic save by goalkeeper Carlos
Coronel held Philadelphia at bay as time began to run out, and penalty kicks
Except, official Fotis Bazakos called a foul giving the
Union a free-kick outside the box. The Red Bulls' defense, stellar throughout
this match, initially blocked the entry shot but failed to clear the ball,
landing at the feel of Jakob Glesnes, and he let loose a shot from a distance that
ended the New York Red Bulls season in the 123rd minute.
And that was that. A roller-coaster of a season ended in
heartbreak fashion. Despite the stunning defeat, coach Struber was proud of his
team and was hopeful for the future. For the Red Bulls, the offseason will be
an interesting one for sure as they plan to hit the winter transfer window hard. Primarily looking for some much-needed
help in the offensive area in the middle of the field where attacks have
sometimes gone begging, frustrating everyone in the process.
And let's be very clear: This is a process. There are lots to improve up, to be sure. There will be new players coming in for next season. But for the first time in two seasons, the team's identity, what brought them when they were knocking on the door to a championship in 2018, is back. Or have you forgotten what Strubers himself said back in March? Just in case you may have forgotten, here's a reminder:
For the New York Red Bulls, Gerhard Struber and especially Head of Sport Kevin Thelwell, the
challenge now is to build upon what they have started. They have a solid foundation
of an identity that will serve them well in the future. A future will bring much success as the 2022 season begins again 98 days from now.