By Peter Schwartz
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When a team with championship aspirations falls short of its goal, the last thing it wants is to be reminded of it.
The Red Bulls will face that scenario on Sunday when they meet the reigning MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field.
As past of their home-opening festivities, the Sounders will be raising their 2016 championship banner. The Red Bulls, who have experienced some excruciating playoff losses the last couple of years, are hoping they will be the ones smiling by the end of the match.
“We’re going to go out there and battle them and show them that you guys have what we want,” Red Bulls midfielder Derrick Etienne Jr. told WFAN.com this week. “We believe that we should be lifting up that trophy at the end of the year. One step in the right direction would be taking them down and spoiling their party.”
The Red Bulls will step on the pitch in Seattle with a great deal of confidence. A season-opening come-from-behind 2-1 win in Atlanta and a 1-0 home win over Colorado have them atop the Eastern Conference standings.
Last season, the Red Bulls came out of the gates 1-6, but were able to overcome that dreadful start on their way to a second straight regular season first-place finish in the conference.
So far so good through two games this season.
“It definitely does feel good,” Etienne said. “We didn’t get off to a good start last year. We knew it was very important for us to get off to a good start this year because who knows if you’re going to be able to come back from a 1-6 start again.”
Obviously it’s great to be 2-0, but the Red Bulls know their play on the pitch has been anything but perfect. They’ve been fortunate to have some bounces go their way in the form of opponents’ own goals. Overall, the Red Bulls have plenty of room for improvement, but they’re not about to apologize for their two victories.
Good teams find a way to win when they’re not on top of their game.
“I think it’s a very good thing,” said Etienne, a homegrown player from Paterson, New Jersey. “As a team, we haven’t been very sharp and we know that will come in time. Once we start playing, we should be a fun team to watch.”
Red Bulls fans have already grown very fond of Etienne’s play as he has risen through the organization from the club’s academy to a spot in the first team’s starting XI. Last season, he was a part of the Red Bulls II’s USL championship squad, and also made one MLS start and two appearances in the Champions League.
Along with homegrown Tyler Adams and Sean Davis, Etienne, who played at the University of Virginia, is making contributions to the first team thanks to the new vision brought to the organization by Jesse Marsch when he took over as head coach prior to the 2015 season.
“It’s very satisfying,” said Etienne, who has been named to Haiti’s preliminary 30-man roster for the Gold Cup playoff series against Nicaragua. “Being a homegrown is something special. In years before, you didn’t really see guys really getting playing time. Being able to come in here and being one of the guys and be able to step in and feel trusted and have a role with the team is very satisfying.”
What would also be satisfying to Etienne and the Red Bulls is leaving Seattle with three more points and continued perfection atop the Eastern Conference table.
United States National Team star Clint Dempsey and the Sounders are off to a 0-1-1 start, but winning still won’t be easy for the Red Bulls in what will be a hostile environment on a night when Seattle celebrates its championship.
The Red Bulls would like nothing better than to be party poopers.
“They’re going to be ecstatic because it’s their home opener and they’re reigning champs,” Etienne said. “We’re a little envious of that. They’re probably going to have the cup there and maybe a ring ceremony and all of that. So we’re going to go there, were going to put our plan into place, and we’re going to put them in a difficult game.”
During their first two games of the season, the Red Bulls faced some adversity, but came away with a pair of victories. Sunday night, they will head into an atmosphere that can make visiting teams flat-out miserable, but New York has its own agenda.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to be firing on all cylinders and go out there and get the win,” Etienne said.
If that happens, the Red Bulls may be on their way to showing MLS that this season will be different.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @detienne_10 and the @NewYorkRedBulls