By Peter Schwartz
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The playoff format in Major League Soccer is quite simple.
In order to qualify for the postseason, a team must finish in the top six in its respective conference. On the standings page of its website, MLS has a red line that separates the top six teams from the remainder of the clubs. You want to be above the red line when the regular season concludes. If you’re below it, it’s the end of the line.
If the playoffs were to start today, the Red Bulls would be on the outside looking in as they prepare for Wednesday night’s contest against the New England Revolution in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
“We are below the line right now,” Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles told WFAN.com. “It is week to week, but every week you still want to see yourself above that line, and this is one of those teams that we’re going to be fighting with right up till the end to stay above that line.”
The Red Bulls have a record of 7-8-2, good for 23 points and the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the sixth-place Columbus Crew. When they take the field Wednesday night, the Red Bulls will know if they have a chance to jump over Columbus and above the red line, as the Crew will be in action Tuesday when they visit Minnesota.
Coming off a U.S. Open Cup victory over Philadelphia this past Wednesday at Red Bull Arena, the Red Bulls are hoping that the fire has been lit to get things kicked into high gear after a sluggish regular season to date.
“Even though things haven’t gone well this season in terms of consistency, I do think it’s games like this that have an added layer of competitiveness and emotion that can spark something,” Robles said. “We need a spark.”
Coming off of back-to-back regular-season conference titles, including a Supporters Shield in 2015, the Red Bulls have struggled out of the gates this season and have put themselves in a situation in which every match is critical. There’s plenty of time left, but the Red Bulls have points to make up and plenty of teams to battle with a crowded Eastern Conference table.
New England sits in 10th place, but is just three points back of the Red Bulls, who continue to set their sights on a return to the playoffs. Picking up three points in Foxborough is critical to reaching that goal.
“That’s the way that we ensure getting in there, because not only do you gain points but you’re keeping them from getting points.” said Robles, who is in his sixth season with the Red Bulls.
And he could be around for a few more because last week the Red Bulls’ all-time leader in career shutouts, goals-against average, wins, games played and minutes played, agreed to a new multiyear deal with the club.
“I think more than anything for myself and for my family included, we feel grateful for the opportunity that the Red Bulls have given us and for them to continue to believe in us by way of this commitment,” Robles said.
Robles will remain the Red Bulls’ starting goalkeeper for the foreseeable future, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be with the team for the remainder of the deal. That uncertainty comes with the territory in Major League Soccer.
“The way this league goes, I could be traded, so there isn’t a part of me that all of a sudden feels like I can let my hair out a little bit, or what little hair I have,” said Robles, who will continue to mentor the other goalkeepers in the Red Bulls organization.
Ryan Meara is Robles’ backup and has guided the Red Bulls to U.S. Open Cup wins over NYCFC and Philadelphia while 21-year-old New Jersey native Evan Louro was signed as a Homegrown Player in January after going through the Red Bulls Academy. Robles said he gladly welcomes the competition in training because it pushes him to be better and stay on top of his game.
He said he’s also well aware that he could currently be advising and mentoring the guy who will eventually take his job. But Robles has the team’s best interests at heart.
“I do believe that part of my responsibility is to make sure that the team is competitive and wins, but I also think that part of my responsibility is to help younger goalkeepers,” he said. “So in every way possible, I try to put my insecurities aside, and I try to help them in any way possible.”
Since head coach Jesse Marsch arrived in 2015, the culture around the organization has continued to evolve.
There has been an emphasis on commitment, integrity and family while also constructing a club that wins trophies, and not just MLS Cup. The Red Bulls have had some success in the CONCACAF Champions League, and they have advanced to a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal matchup against New England on July 13 at Harvard University.
The Red Bulls have their sights set on some more hardware to join the two Supporters Shields in their trophy case.
“Every competition that we’ve been a part of we take very seriously, whether it’s U.S. Open Cup to Champions League, to the regular season and playoffs,” Robles said. “It is frustrating that we’ve only been able to come away with one trophy, but I believe in this group, and I’m hoping this year is the year that we lift not only the U.S. Open Cup but also obviously the ultimate goal, the MLS Cup.”
But the only way Robles and the Red Bulls can compete for the MLS Cup is if they find a way to get above the red line and stay there when the regular season is over.
They need to star stringing together good performances, and a strong showing Wednesday in New England could go a long way in getting on a roll.
You can follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @luisrobles1984 and @NewYorkRedBulls.