By Peter Schwartz
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To say it was a bit awkward the first time that Jesse Marsch interacted with Red Bulls fans would be an understatement.
Back in 2015, he had just replaced fan favorite Mike Petke as head coach and the faithful were not happy. So on Jan. 16 of that year, the Red Bulls decided to try and clear the air by holding a town hall meeting with season ticket holders at Red Bull Arena.
“We had to get through some initial moments with the town hall meeting and everything else,” Marsch told WFAN.com during an exclusive interview Wednesday night as he was en route to the team’s “Snap & Sign” event at RBA.
Marsch has certainly built up some trust and faith with Red Bulls fans thanks to a Supporters Shield trophy and a pair of regular season Eastern Conference championships. But had the team scheduled their meet and greet with “Red Bull Members” say five or six weeks ago, Marsch may have been on the hot seat with the fans again with more questions to answer.
With new faces and a mix of veterans and young players, the Red Bulls struggled out of the gate, but have turned it around with a 5-2-1 run in MLS plays and a run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. There is certainly a much better feeling around the team these days as it heads into Saturday night’s home match against Montreal.
“It’s always easier when we’re doing well for the fans who show appreciation for the team,” said Marsch, who has helped steer the Red Bulls to an 10-8-2 record, good for 32 points and fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
Now that the Red Bulls have clawed their way above the “red line” in the standings, things are certainly coming together like the organization had hoped for during the preseason. They’ve outscored their last four opponents in all competitions by a combined 12-3 count, including an impressive 3-0 win at Minnesota this past Saturday.
All is well in Red Bull land these days, but in reality that has been the case since the start. Well, at least since that town hall meeting.
“Since I’ve been there’s been general positivity around this team and the direction of the club in general,” Marsch said. “There’s been so many positive things happening over the past few years that I haven’t had … .once in a while you read something that somebody would say, but for the most part when people are around our team and around me they are nothing but positive.”
There really is a lot to like about this team.
After signing a multi-year extension, striker Bradley Wright-Phillips admitted to having an inconsistent start, but his goal Saturday in Minnesota was his 10th of the season and upped his career regular season total to 79. Captain Sacha Kljestan netted his first goal of the season in last Wednesday’s win over San Jose and with his assist on BWP’s goal this past Saturday, he sits 14th all-time in regular season assists with 76. Oh and with his effort in Saturday’s shutout, the 45th clean sheet of his career, veteran goalkeeper Luis Robles became the franchise leader in minutes played (14,400).
Marsch said he was aware of his veterans’ early season struggles, but is glad they hung in there and stuck with the plan.
“I have credit after this (past Saturday’s) game to Sacha, Luis, and Brad because they had to be patient,” Marsch said. “They had to struggle through certain moments of the season. They knew it was a young team and there were going to be some bumps in the road. They stayed strong and they committed to the work in a big way and I think most of the team then followed from that perspective.”
The Red Bulls’ three stars have been the glue that has held everything together and have spearheaded the turnaround, but they’ve also had some help. Throw in some dynamic scoring from Daniel Royer and exciting young players like Sean Davis, Tyler Adams, Aaron Long, and Alex Muyl and the chemistry is really starting to build in Harrison.
“The team has grown a lot in the past two months,” Marsch said. “We went through some tough moments in the beginning of the year and whenever we go through those we make sure that we emphasize in those moments more than ever that we have to stick together.”
And this group that has grown by leaps and bounds during the last six weeks is about to get some reinforcements. With the transfer window in effect until Aug. 9, the Red Bulls are planning to add some pieces to the puzzle, thanks to some cap room that they budgeted for mid-season acquisitions.
So Marsch and company are ready to get the checkbook out.
“Oh yeah, no doubt,” Marsch said. “I think very soon we’ll start announcing some acquisitions. They’ll be a minimum of two additions and potentially up to four or five. We’re continuing to scour the league and international markets to find the right kind of guys to fit in to who we are. I think a couple of the improvements we know about are going to be really good additions.”
But before the new players arrive, the Red Bulls hope to keep things going in the right direction Saturday against Montreal. The Red Bulls are 8-4-2 all-time against the Impact, including 7-0 against Montreal at Red Bull Arena. Of late, Montreal has had the upper hand, winning 1-0 at home earlier in the season after eliminating New York from the playoffs last fall.
“You know, Montreal has had our number recently and it’s a team that has some very dangerous attacking players,” Marsch said. “We know them pretty well and, obviously, it will be a key for us to push with momentum and continue to establish ourselves at home so that we can continue to push for the playoffs this year.”
A slow start followed by the a strong finish is something that the Red Bulls and their fans have been used to over the last couple of years and this season has been no exception. There were early struggles, but now the winning ways have started to resurface.
“It has been a good two months and it has been a rewarding two months,” Marsch said. “But we have to all know that there’s still a lot of work to do.”
As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NewYorkRedBulls