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Red Bulls Season Ends in Familiar Heartbreak

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 protocols.

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 were imminent.

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.

 

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