After losing to the Columbus Crew on Sept. 14, with just 12 regular-season games remaining, the New York Red Bulls were predicted by FiveThirtyEight to have a 92% chance to miss the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
Inside Red Bull Arena, staff and players didn't stop believing. And the 8% won out.
With a Decision Day 1-1 draw against Nashville SC, the Red Bulls officially clinched a playoff berth for the 12th year in a row. It is the second-longest streak in league history, just behind Seattle's 13.
“I had big belief in this group all season, I had big trust in this team," head coach Gerhard Struber told media on a post-game press conference. "From my heart, to my brain to my body language. The boys always realized that – maybe sometimes the boys thought I was crazy."
Though the club remained defiant, they weren't immune to the national narrative.
“No one believed in us," Struber said. "I can remember the comments from the media. They gave nothing to us.”
Struber points to the days between the Columbus loss and a commanding 4-0 win against Inter Miami CF just three days later as the turning point. Starting with that win, the Red Bulls ended the season on a streak of 7W-1L-4D. They needed every single result, too, finishing just a point ahead of D.C. United and Columbus, who finished 8th and 9th behind the Red Bulls in 7th, the final playoff spot out East.
The Red Bulls entered 2021 in a new direction. Struber took over for his first real go with the team – he was hired in 2020 but only arrived in time to coach their one-and-done playoff match – while the squad underwent a big makeover. Key players Fabio, Patryk Klimala, Tom Edwards and Andrew Gutman arrived, while former Defender of the Year and US men's national team regular Aaron Long went down early with a season-ending injury.
Despite the hurdles, working in a new coach and new players, the Red Bulls eventually found their form.
“I’m fortunate to play for this club, a club with such high standards," midfielder and club captain Sean Davis said. "When results weren’t going our way, in difficult moments, it was about reminding everyone here what the standard is at this club: Making the playoffs and going for MLS Cup.
"We talked about it so many times this season. Ultimately, it’s about protecting the culture. That’s our job as older guys on a young team, letting guys know what’s expected of them every single day. I’m so proud of the group, I’m so proud of the staff with how we adjusted and got the job done.”
The Red Bulls will travel to face the Philadelphia Union in Round One of the playoffs, a rematch from the 2019 postseason in which RBNY lost a thrilling match that finished 4-3 after extra time. It was the first playoff game the Union won in club history.
Games between the two sides have been tight this year, with the Union winning one and the other two finishing in draws. Struber and his staff will soon focus on the preparation for that game. But for now, they'll be sure to enjoy the achievement.
“We are very happy to go to the playoffs," Struber said. "We’ll celebrate today and tomorrow, then we’ll look forward with a clear plan and a clear goal.
The Red Bulls, an MLS original, have still yet to win MLS Cup in their proud history, despite consistently making the playoffs, as well as winning three Supporters' Shields since 2013. That remains the ultimate goal.
“We’re in a really good place defensively," Davis said. "That makes us a dangerous team in the playoffs, with our recent form, we’re a scary team. The goal is MLS Cup. Why can’t it be us?”