HANOVER, N.J. – Wednesday night’s U.S. Open Cup final (9 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes) represents the biggest moment in club history for the New York Red Bulls, a match that can deliver a first championship trophy for one of MLS's founding members.
It is a title that would validate two years of growth and purpose under head coach Jesse Marsch.
That’s not to take away from the two Supporters’ Shield titles won by the Red Bulls over the past four seasons, marks of excellence in the regular season first lifted by former head coach Mike Petke in 2013 and most recently by Marsch two seasons ago. Those titles adorned a relatively empty trophy case for the Red Bulls, a team that – despite beginning play during the league’s inaugural season in 1996 – still haven’t won MLS Cup.
The fact that up until four years ago, the hardware for winning a preseason tournament in La Manga, Spain and the Emirates Cup exhibition event in 2011 represented the organization's most prestigious titles speaks volumes about the heartache that comes with being a fan around these parts.
For an organization that is winless in cup finals – they lost the 2003 U.S. Open Cup final as the MetroStars to the Chicago Fire, then the 2008 MLS Cup to Columbus Crew SC – Wednesday night's clash with Sporting Kansas City means plenty.
In fact, forward Bradley Wright-Phillips said it “means everything.”
It is the chance to finally lift a trophy at the end of a tournament, to feel the confetti and know that they are finally, after 22 years of existence, truly champions of something. And the Open Cup, with its storied history and revered place in American soccer, would be that accomplishment, that crowning joy.
After Sunday’s scoreless draw with the Philadelphia Union, a match in which Marsch rested most of his starters to keep them fresh for Wednesday night, midfielder Sacha Kljestan spoke eloquently about the significance of this match.
He had heard from suppporters of their suffering, dating back to the MetroStars days. MLS Cup, he said, is the ultimate goal. But he and his teammates want to bring home this trophy to a long-suffering fanbase.
Marsch’s arrival in 2015 ushered in a new era for the Red Bulls. With the retirement of Thierry Henry, the club toned down its big-ticket spending on big-name players. These legends had often had tremendous resumes and careers, bringing notoriety and star power to the team. But no one, ranging from Henry to Juan Pablo Angel to Lothar Matthaus to Roberto Donadoni, had been able to bring home a championship.
In came Marsch and a new strategy, blending in youth and drawing from an academy system that is one of the best in MLS. Players like Sean Davis, Matt Miazga and Tyler Adams came up through the ranks and have become a large part of the first team over the past three seasons, with Marsch blending them in with a core of savvy veteran players.
It reaped that 2015 Supporters’ Shield, and now a chance at something really big. Something that means so much more than those Shield titles.
A win on Wednesday night would validate the rebuilding and the direction of the Red Bulls. It would vindicate difficult decisions made by Marsch & Co., like trading captain Dax McCarty to Chicago last winter. If this year’s Open Cup run ends in a banner being raised over Red Bull Arena, then all those moves can chalked up as successes for this organization.
The timing couldn’t be better for the Red Bulls.
The noisy neighbors across town in the Bronx have built quite a team, balanced with star power and their own young, exciting talent. New York City FC could make a run at their own silverware this fall, with a squad well-built for a run at MLS Cup. The Red Bulls can’t let their upstart brethren at Yankee Stadium win something before them, not if they want to continue to claim the “big brother” mantra in this growing rivalry.
The Red Bulls will carry over two decades’ worth of failures and frustration on their shoulders when they take the field at Children’s Mercy Park on Wednesday night. With key starters rested heading into this match and plenty of experienced veteran heads to call upon, there are no excuses. This is a game that was made for this team, at this time – a chance to finally bring home a trophy when they return this weekend.
Win the Open Cup and New York will finally, after 22 years in the wilderness, have a trophy worth celebrating. A trophy worthy of the suffering. A trophy to call their own.
Kristian Dyer is a New York-based soccer journalist, who has covered MLS and the New York Red Bulls for several outlets, including MLSsoccer.com, Metro and MSG Network, for which he also regularly serves as an on-air analyst.