New York Red Bulls head coach Gerhard Struber began his postgame press conference Sunday at Red Bull Arena by making one thing explicitly clear.
“First of all, New York is red,” Struber said after their 1-0 victory over New York City FC, winning the regular-season series against their Hudson River Derby rival (2-0-1 overall), one that included three games in under a month.
The result carries significance beyond any back-and-forth barbs, as it drew RBNY level with NYCFC on 40 points as the Eastern Conference’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs plot continues to thicken. The Cityzens sit narrowly ahead on the goal differential tiebreaker in eighth place, though are winless in five games and haven’t scored in 419 minutes.
On the flipside, RBNY are unbeaten in seven games (five wins, two draws) and are one of MLS’ most in-form teams. Only the Supporters’ Shield-leading New England Revolution have earned as many points (17) across the same span.
So, what’s clicked? As Struber sees it, the passage of time has allowed their youth-heavy roster to adapt to MLS’ rigors and challenges – all while applying the RBNY game model.
“Right now, the last few weeks show us, we realize more and more what is our clear identity,” the Austrian manager noted. “We have so many players, new players that come in the team and we cannot expect that they play from the first second in a style of play with so many rule-breakers in a successful way. It's always that you have some learning moments and my boys learned the last few months in a very hurtful direction sometimes.
“But right now, we are a big step further in our process and this makes the difference. This is the only one.”
“We spoke a lot this week about what we wanted from this game and we talked a lot about what we've been through as a team,” Davis said. “You can't fake that. It's just a lot of tough experiences, a lot of adversity that forces a team to grow up and grow together. I think we saw that from the players to the staff and we're hitting our stride at the right time.
“There's still a long way to go, there's a lot to improve. But I think that we've been through a lot as a team and that builds character. And I think we're seeing that now.”
With the October international break behind them, RBNY have five regular-season games remaining to make the postseason a 12th straight time. The last year they didn’t qualify was 2009, when MLS had 15 clubs compared to its current 27.
That fact wasn’t lost on center back Sean Nealis, who made RBNY’s situation crystal clear.
“Over the last few weeks we kind of saw where we were on the table,” Nealis said. “We didn't like it, we looked ourselves in the mirror and I think we all thought to ourselves and had conversations within the locker room, [among] each other, that we had to step up and that it was kind of do-or-die. We want to make the playoffs, that's our goal.”
The journey continues Saturday at the Columbus Crew, with the defending MLS Cup champions equally as desperate for a boost (6 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). As of now, just two points separate fifth place (Atlanta United) from ninth place (RBNY) in the Eastern Conference standings.
“The big goal is that we step in the playoffs and we have some big to-dos in the next few weeks with big opponents and big battles,” Struber said, with the East's top seven teams qualifying. “I think right now we enjoy the moment but we know this is not the end. We have to bring constantly performances like that and then I think in the end we stay in the playoffs.”