The New York Red Bulls were on the verge of penalty kicks Saturday afternoon at Subaru Park.
They’d done just enough defensively to stave off the Philadelphia Union in their Eastern Conference Round One game in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. If a shootout rolled around, who knows how the best-of-five roulette spin would’ve gone and if RBNY’s Carlos Coronel or Philly’s Andre Blake would play the hero.
Just like that, the No. 7 seed’s chance at upsetting the No. 2 seed was over. The single-elimination format served a bitter, sour ending to the 2021 season, making it 26 consecutive years without raising MLS Cup for a league original that began competing as the MetroStars.
But it’s not time to hang their heads, RBNY coach Gerhard Struber said afterward upon collecting his thoughts near the banks of the Delaware River.
“I look excited in the future with this team, I think we have made a big step in the season and then right now we are on the level to manage games against the teams like Philadelphia,” the Austrian manager said. “Philadelphia is of course a team, and everyone knows that, on the highest level, in all of America. This means for me we made many things in the right way. We have some to-dos, but I’m looking forward with a very good feeling with my whole group.”
That positive outlook comes after a campaign where, for long stretches, the club’s 11-year playoff streak seemed likely to end. Backline injuries piled up, most notably to US men’s national team center back Aaron Long (ruptured Achilles tendon). And they ultimately dropped 23 points from winning positions, the third-most in MLS, perhaps indicative of a squad that averaged under 23 years of age.
By comparison, the likes of midfielder and captain Sean Davis (28), on-loan defender Andrew Gutman (25) and center back Sean Nealis (24) were long-toothed veterans on a team ripe with 15 new signings, learning what it takes to win in MLS. Would the project during Struber’s first full season need more time?
Yet the tide turned in mid-September, and RBNY went 7W-1L-4D to close the regular season and book a 12th straight postseason trip. A Decision Day draw at Nashville SC was enough to get in, one point separating the East’s No. 7 through No. 9 table finishers (D.C. United, Columbus).
It all finally came together, Davis said.
“I think the foundation is really strong now,” Davis said. “I think Gerhard’s vision became super clear by the end of the year and the guys all bought it completely. I’m still proud of the guys, the staff, I’ll say that to him blue in the face.
“I think that what’s being built here is really special, and of course, we need to improve, there’s no doubt about that. But I think that when you look at the season as a whole that there’s so much that we were able to accomplish, and I just hope that the fans are proud of us for the last two months for the run that we put together, and how the entire organization stuck together and that’s something to be proud of.”
As Davis noted, there’s plenty for RBNY to improve upon. Their 39 goals scored were the fewest of MLS’ 14 playoff-bound teams, and they logged just 0.9 expected goals (xG) against Philly on Saturday. To steal a line from Charlie Boehm’s postgame takeaways piece: Jogo bonito, this wasn’t.
But there’s no denying that RBNY’s high-pressing system is remarkably effective, and it forced a 2021 Concacaf Champions League semifinalist to play the game on their terms. There were also signs of why New York allowed just 33 regular-season goals, joint-fewest in MLS alongside Seattle and Nashville.
Shortcomings in the final third stick out, though. Fabio and Patryk Klimala combined for 15 goals and 14 assists, but there was no Best XI-level forward, fear-inducing winger, or lock-picking No. 10 that often makes the difference in the postseason’s pressure cooker. It speaks to the ethos vs. star mantra facing MLS clubs, how to blend the pair.
“I think we have to make the next step in many times when we are on the ball, and I think this is the big next step that we create many chances in possession,” Struber said, acknowledging as much. “I think we have to be clear with our weapon against the ball, but also that we find a flexible way to create chances in all phases in the game.”
Now, this playoff sting won't dissipate overnight for RBNY players, coaches and fans alike. It'll linger through first kick on Feb. 26 and beyond, wondering what underdog-fueled run awaited.
But the early anticipation for 2022 is apparent, a belief that next season will be more fruitful. And there are plenty of roster questions, with reports of right back Kyle Duncan heading to Belgium, midfielder Caden Clark set to join German Bundesliga club RB Leipzig via transfer and several key players – Fabio (from Brazil's Oeste FC), Gutman (from Atlanta United), Coronel (from Austrian sister club Red Bull Salzburg) and defender Tom Edwards (from England's Stoke City) – on expiring loans. Perhaps one or more returns.
It'll be a busy offseason for Struber and head of sport Kevin Thelwell, but key figures are bullish on their direction. As Davis noted post-game, 2021 was about "building a foundation" in some respects.
"Ultimately, it is about winning MLS Cup and I think we are trending in the right direction," Davis said. "I think that it was a strong push at the end of the year. I think we proved that we are a very difficult team to score against, but we know that it’s a game of fine margins, especially in the playoffs, so we have to continue to improve. That is going to be something that we have to address heading into next year."