It was the kind of name, face and résumé New York Red Bulls supporters have long been crying out for. A dimension of player arguably missing from the club since the days of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, which also coincides with the last trophy RBNY won, the 2018 Supporters’ Shield.
Emil Forsberg radiated confidence, calm and charisma as he was officially unveiled to the media Friday evening at Red Bull Arena, declaring his intent to return RBNY to the MLS elite.
“We don't like to talk about the past. But the past is the way it is,” the Red Bulls’ new Designated Player said. “I'm here now to bring positivity, mentality, and together with everybody – we win as a team, we lose as a team, but we have to have that mentality that we're going to win every game, that we have the quality to win every game. And if we do that, and we give 100% on every training, in every game, we will have success. I'm sure of it.”
Delayed and rescheduled due to the severe weather that roiled across the Tri-State area last month, Friday’s event took place between New York’s first preseason camp, an 11-day stint in Bradenton, Florida, and their upcoming participation in the Coachella Valley Invitational in California's High Desert.
Plentiful scoring in their three scrimmages to date offered glimpses of Forsberg’s creative gifts, and convinced him that his new team can achieve great things, even with an abundance of youth that’s become the club’s calling card in recent years. The 32-year-old Swedish international is expected to serve as a leader and face of RBNY in addition to providing attacking productivity, responsibilities he says he embraces.
“I've been playing under pressure my whole life. I love the pressure and I'm excited, I'm very comfortable,” said Forsberg, a star of his country’s 2018 World Cup and Euro 2016 and 2020 campaigns. “And I'm also convinced about the quality of the team and what I'm going to bring to the team. I've done the journey with Leipzig as well, and the most important thing is the team, that we come together. The quality is very, very high in the team. And like I said the first weeks have been really, really good and I'm going to keep pushing. I mean, I'm here to win, nothing else.
“I know how good I am and what I can bring to the team, and I'm going to do that.”
The occasion also featured the formal introduction of new head coach Sandro Schwarz, and the Bundesliga veteran underlined his playmaker’s value, having faced him repeatedly as both a player and coach during Forsberg’s long, successful tenure with RBNY sibling club RB Leipzig.
Forsberg first joined Leipzig in 2015, when they were still in the German second division, and racked up 71 goals and 68 assists in 324 appearances across nine years for the energy-drink upstarts from the East, becoming a club icon as they won two DFB-Pokals and defied the country’s footballing establishment to become regular UEFA Champions League participants.
“Emil has a great character, in the locker room is a great person, outside also of the field, and if you see him then in the training session and also in the games with his quality, especially in his ball possession, very intelligent,” said Schwarz. “So this is experience … I'm sure for the whole group he’s very important, not only for me as the head coach, but for the whole group.
“Professional behavior outside the pitch, but with a great character, with the identity of Red Bull, and this is what we have in the first weeks [of preseason] the feeling,” added the German manager. “We played a lot of times against each other; most of the time he won the games, to be honest. But I'm happy that he's in our team.”
Is Forsberg enough?
After a woeful start to 2023, RBNY climbed out of the Eastern Conference basement under interim boss Troy Lesesne last summer and dramatically extended their MLS-record streak of Audi MLS Cup Playoffs qualification (14) on the final day of the season, then routed Charlotte FC in the Wild Card before falling to FC Cincinnati in a contentious Round One series.
Even with Forsberg in the fold, questions linger as to whether their current roster offers the quality and depth required to contend for honors this time around. Head of sport Jochen Schneider deflected the suggestion that they could’ve been more “aggressive” in their winter transfer business thus far.
“I would say aggressive is a big word. Sometimes I don't know if it has to be aggressive if you want to convince somebody to join your club,” said Schneider, who earlier in the week called for patience from supporters as Schwarz finds his feet in the North American game. “We are excited [with] what we've done so far in this transfer window, adding four players to our team, and also we must not forget that quite a few players are coming back at the moment from long, long injuries like Lewis Morgan, Serge Ngoma and Dante Vanzeir, and we still keep our eyes open. We're not done yet.
“What I said in November is that we need to do the next step, to be able to win these playoff games, and that's why we improved our roster. That's why we brought a player like Emil to us. It's not only him, it's also his qualities to lead a team and to make his teammates better on the pitch.”
Ready to lead
Forsberg says he’s fully focused on that task. His wife Shanga, herself a former footballer, and their two young daughters have not yet made the move from Europe, and he’s put off the task of finding a permanent home until preseason is behind him.
He and Schwarz emphasized the short-term priority of a strong start to the regular season, which opens with a visit to Nashville SC on Feb. 25 (5 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) and continues with a rugged March schedule featuring Lionel Messi's Inter Miami, reigning MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew and three other opponents who qualified for last year's playoffs.
“It’s always young everywhere in Red Bull, so I was one of the older [players], but I made the journey in Leipzig from being a young guy to being an experienced guy,” said Forsberg. “I've seen a lot of young guys come to Leipzig, grow as a person, as a footballer to get better. So I know how hard you have to work and that's why I think it's a fantastic match for me as well to be here, to push the young guys to get better, every day to help them, to point them, sometimes, in the right direction. So I mean, I have a lot of pressure and responsibility on my shoulders, but I love it and I'm here to do it.
“We're going to be a team and we're going to win as a team, and this is what we have to bring every day to training. And if we do that, I'm convinced we're going to have a lot of fun this year.”