By Peter Schwartz
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A check of the Major League Soccer standings shows the Red Bulls currently in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. That’s a far cry from the top of the table where this team finished the last two seasons and in three of the last four campaigns.
But while a 3-3-1 start to the season might be alarming to some, the team’s blueprint for success remains in place.
With 10 points, the Red Bulls are actually in very good shape as they’re not only in a playoff position, but they are just three points behind firtst-place Columbus heading into Saturday night’s showdown with the Crew at Red Bull Arena.
The Red Bulls have just one win on the road, but they’re 2-0-1 in Harrison heading into the second match of a three-game homestand. In a season in which they have made the commitment to young players and developing a winning culture for years to come, the organization seems encouraged by the current state of things.
“I feel good about the direction of where we’re going, but I wasn’t overly concerned when we hadn’t gotten some of the road results,” head coach Jesse Marsch told WFAN.com during a phone conversation on Wednesday. “It was just about trying to pinpoint ways to get better on a daily basis.”
After suffering three losses in four games, the Red Bulls got back in the win column last Saturday with a 2-0 win over D.C. United. It was a step forward after the club went through some tough times or a few weeks. However, the organization expected growing pains given the makeup of the roster.
A returning core of veterans, led by MLS Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips, goalkeeper Luis Robles, and midfielder Sacha Kljestan, has been meshed together with emerging young players like defender Aaron Long, and midfielders Sean Davis, Derrick Etienne Jr., and Tyler Adams. What the team may lack in star power it has supplemented with growing chemistry and a blueprint for success.
“By going with some of our younger guys we knew that there was potential to have some moments in the beginning that would be tough,” Marsch said. “We were going to use that time to give our young players that we think are really talented some big experiences. I think that we’ve actually managed it well. To be 3-3-1 right now with 10 points sounds really positive on the overall experiences.”
Given the sophisticated and demanding nature of the New York sports fan, there has always been this debate about whether building with youth is acceptable to the paying customers as opposed to going for the quick fix by opening up the checkbook and splurging on high-priced talent.
Well, it seems like times are changing.
The Yankees have made a commitment to youth with the likes of Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Aaron Judge, while the Jets have been shedding salary left and right and appear to be ready to wheel and deal to collect more picks for the upcoming NFL Draft. The Red Bulls are doing the same thing, a soccer version of “Moneyball” if you will, but they are also trying to win at the same time.
“I know the identity of what the New York sports fan is,” Marsch said. “You’re starting to see, in general, an evolution in professional sports that’s going more towards grooming young talent and creating a true identity around an organization.”
Given the offseason changes that included the controversial trade that sent captain Dax McCarty to Chicago, and the implementation of young players into important roles, the Red Bulls are going full steam ahead in their plan to build a team that can win every year without ignoring the present.
With all of the struggles they’ve endured this season, a win over Columbus on Saturday could vault the Red Bulls closer to, if not all the way, to the Eastern Conference penthouse. It’s one of this week’s marquee matchups in MLS as Columbus likes to expand the field and attack on the outside, while New York’s style is to attack through the middle of the pitch and make the field smaller.
“I would think for soccer fans out there this is one of the best matchups of the year,” Marsch said. “It’s a battle of wits and it’s a battle of styles and it always makes for an interesting matchup and makes for really good games.”
When you look at the sports teams in the New York/New Jersey area, you see playoff teams like the Rangers, who went to the Stanley Cup final three seasons ago, the Mets, who got to the World Series in 2015, and the Giants, who have given their fans a couple of Super Bowl titles over the last decade. You also have the other end of the spectrum, with a team like the Knicks, an organization that doesn’t really seem to know what it is doing.
The Red Bulls, who have delivered their fans a pair of Supporters Shields in recent years, have decided to build an organization that can sustain success for a long period of time. They’re doing it with some baby steps, but you can see the groundwork being laid for the day that they raise MLS Cup, maybe even multiple times.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @jessemarsch and @NewYorkRedBulls