By Peter Schwartz
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The Red Bulls didn’t exactly come out of the gates blazing to start the 2016 season.READ MORE: Times Square Shooting: Intense Manhunt Continues; Sources Say Shooter Known To Police For Illegal Vending In Area
Yet despite winning just one win of their first seven matches, they were able to climb out of that hole and win their second straight Eastern Conference regular season title.
But as the Red Bulls get ready for the start of the 2017 campaign this Sunday night in Atlanta, the hope is that they can avoid another rough beginning.
“You don’t want to feel like that again,” striker Bradley Wright-Phillips told WFAN.com in an exclusive interview on Thursday. “(Starting) 1-6 still haunts me now when I think about it, but to be fair, we learned from that last season.”
The Red Bulls rolled to the MLS Cup playoffs, thanks to a 16-game unbeaten streak, but whatever magic they had down the stretch disappeared when they lost to the Montreal Impact in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The 2015 season also ended prematurely for the Red Bulls with a loss to Columbus in the conference final four. So once again, the Red Bulls are gearing up for a new season with some unfinished business on their to-do list.
“The MLS Cup is always the goal,” said Wright-Phillips, who is coming off of another brilliant season as he scored 24 goals to capture his second MLS Golden Boot in three seasons and was a finalist for MLS MVP. “If we don’t win that, it’s always a disappointment and we haven’t won. No matter how well you do in the regular season, it’s always seen as a failure. So until we win that, there’s always going to be that failure feeling.”
After their stunning loss to Montreal, the Red Bulls retooled a bit for the 2017 season. The makeover included the stunning trade of captain Dax McCarty to the Chicago Fire and the commitment to homegrown players like Tyler Adams, Brandon Allen, Sean Davis, and Derrick Etienne Jr.
Sometimes change can be good, but it took some time for BWP to have a good feeling about what lies ahead in 2017 for the fourth-youngest team in Major League Soccer.
“I’m very positive about it now,” Wright-Phillips said. “These guys are getting a chance. It’s up to these guys now to create their own stories.”
Putting all the players in the right situations to achieve success is Jesse Marsch, who returns for his third season as Red Bulls head coach. There were rumors that Marsch was going to leave for Red Bull Salzberg in Austria, but he and his meticulous attention to detail remain in Harrison to help guide the club towards their ultimate goal.
“He’s very good,” Wright-Phillips said. “He’s very specific and he makes your job easier to go out and do what he wants you to do, because he’s put it all out there for you. I’ve never really been with a manager that does that.”
Marsch has also found a new captain in midfielder Sacha Kljestan. The former Seton Hall star scored six goals last season, his second with the Red Bulls. He was already been one of the most respected players on the team and in MLS, but now he assumes the added pressure of the captain’s armband.READ MORE: Mother's Day Bliss: Moms Enjoy A Day Of Pampering, Family And Fine Foods At Various NYC Restaurants
“He’s been second to none at his position in the league,” Wright-Phillips said of Kljestan who joined BWP on the MLS Best 11 player squad. “It makes sense for him to be the captain.”
For the Red Bulls, their quest for a league championship begins Sunday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium when they will be the opponent in the first game in the history of Atlanta United FC.
Led by head coach Gerardo Martino and striker Kenwyne Jones, the United are expected to debut in front of a big crowd.
“They apparently got a lot of fans coming out and they sold a lot of season tickets,” Wright-Phillips said. “The atmosphere should be good. They look like they can be good. It’s going to be a tough game, but it will be very exciting.”
Given their playoff failures over the last few seasons, the Red Bulls aren’t getting much love from MLS prognosticators. Many experts have picked them to finish in third place in the Eastern Conference behind Toronto and NYCFC.
With their eyes on a regular season conference championship three-peat, the Red Bulls are using the naysayers as motivation.
“We probably got a few doubters like we normally do, but a team like us … we relish that,” Wright-Phillips said. “We like to play with a chip on our shoulder.”
What the Red Bulls are hoping to do is bottle all that regular season success that they’ve enjoyed and find a way to carry it over to the postseason. There’s been some chatter around the league that the Red Bulls are a team built to win in the regular season, but not in the playoffs. It’s up to the coaches and players to prove that theory wrong. But until they do it, those playoff failures will continue to follow them around.
So how do the Red Bulls finally put it together and win MLS Cup?
“It’s hard to put my finger on it as to exactly what’s missing, but I feel like we’re just a little off and I don’t know … naïve,” Wright-Phillips said. “We go in and it’s almost like we’re too excited. We’ve got to mature. I think we need to be better in both boxes when it comes to playoff time of the season.”
Perhaps with the injection of youth, the Red Bulls can finally capture what has eluded them for a very long time.MORE NEWS: Cyberattack Prompts Major Pipeline Operator To Halt Operations; What Will It Potentially Mean For Gas Prices?
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @TheRealBWP and @NewYorkRedBulls