That’s a statement that can apply to essentially every season over the past decade, during which the Red Bulls have never finished lower than 6th, while finishing 1st in five different seasons. A win on Tuesday night in Philadelphia (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+, MLS LIVE on DAZN) would have them firmly entrenched in 3rd place. Although MLS Cup continues to elude them, it’s the type of sustained success most clubs aspire to have.
But manager Chris Armas is noticing a media narrative taking shape of late around the club that seems to glance over the wins they continue to rack up. He addressed it in a conference call with reporters, responding to a question about future lineup changes after star midfielder Kaku came off the bench in a victorious Hudson River Derby win. Kaku played the final 17 minutes of a game that saw RBNY thoroughly outperform NYCFC: 14-8 in shots, 7-2 in shots on target, 10-6 in chances created and 85-59 in passes into the final third.
“I think there are questions probably when they see the lineup [without Kaku], but I didn’t hear a lot after [the win],” Armas said. “It seems like when the Red Bulls lose, there’s a lot of talk. We win a Supporters’ Shield, we don’t hear much. We win a derby match, we don’t really hear much besides it’s another controversial win.
“We understand that people enjoy betting against us and people like to attack a little bit. They enjoy saying when we don’t do well. You go to Orlando [for the MLS is Back Tournament], you outshoot an opposition [Cincinnati] 20-4, you lose and it’s ‘the coach is terrible’ and the ‘players no good.’ We come home, we win a derby match 14-7 in shots – for us it’s fairly decisive, although it’s always in the balance – it’s short-lived. It gets quiet quickly when I make the decisions that work. We do around here what we think is best for the victory each and every time and that’s what people should expect.”
In what was his latest candid and revealing conversation with the media, Armas provided insight into his lineup decisions, the experiences that have shaped his team over recent years and the upcoming match against their cross-turnpike rivals.
Armas on Philly: We’re probably their biggest rival
Armas acknowledged there is extra juice to the RBNY-Philly match due to the proximity, the similar playing styles and the meaningful matches in recent years. Their latest meeting was a single-elimination playoff match that saw the Union come back to win 4-3 after RBNY had 2-0 and 3-1 leads – “a game we won’t forget and it bothers us still,” Armas said.
“I think what people are feeling and what we know is real,” Armas continued about the rivalry. “There’s something extra on it for us although it’s only three points. But it’s a big game and we’re right there in the standings with them and we know it’s going to be a big one. But we have a bad taste in our mouths from 10 months ago.”
Armas shared his appreciation for several of the Union’s players: Jamiro Monteiro (“a difference-maker”), Alejandro Bedoya (“a winner”), Jose “El Brujo” Martinez (“a destroyer who brings an edge”), Sergio Santos (“a real presence … a lot more confident”), Kacper Przybylko (“we know how dangerous he can be”) and Brenden Aaronson, whom he compared to USMNT legend Tab Ramos: a quick, shifty player who can create something out of nothing. “We don’t see many guys like this in the league or in the country,” Armas said.
He feels that although the Union are still a team that can control a game with possession, they now incorporate pressing and counterpressing concepts and this year they also play more direct soccer, creating more transition moments through second balls and turnovers. With these qualities at play, “it becomes challenging on the day [to face them] because it’s a battle of will and a battle of those little details – of second balls and combativeness.”
And RBNY have learned something about keeping leads in Philadelphia. They went to Subaru Park twice in 2019 – once in the regular season and then in Round One of the playoffs – and they held 2-0 leads in each match only to finish on the losing end. Those were experiences that Armas says have helped the Red Bulls grow.
“We’ve understood the phenomenon of momentum more. It’s a real thing,” Armas said, citing another instance in the recent MLS is Back match against Columbus. “The more we can understand this and figure out how to sustain momentum when you have it and how to break momentum when you don’t – we’ve worked hard at that. And we’ve tried to understand in our pressing philosophy, in our aggressive philosophy, how to defend structurally so that we can control certain spaces and protect certain spaces.”
Armas explained how this thinking led to his bringing in Manny Egbo off the bench to defend a 1-0 lead in response to NYCFC bringing on Alexandru Mitrita in the Hudson River Derby. The right side duo of Egbo and right back Kyle Duncan proceeded to contain their rivals’ push in a 4-4-2 designed to protect the wide areas. “We thought that made a lot of sense on paper and it worked,” Armas said.
“Against Philadelphia [in 2019 playoffs], it almost seemed that whatever we did, it was hard to break that momentum,” he continued. “Against good teams, they start throwing a lot at you and it’s difficult … We think we’ve learned. We’re growing. We don’t have all the answers because on the other side of it, teams are throwing everything at you.”
As far as who starts against Philly?
“Each week we assess where we’re at and how we want to strategize for the opposition,” Armas said. “And in certain games when we think that it requires a certain level of combativeness and second balls and running and it’s going to be a big day that’s going to test your pressing and those principles, certain guys can meet those demands at a high level.
“That’s what people can expect. We will put out a team that gives us the best chance to win the game.”