HANOVER, N.J. – Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, two players who represented the face of the New York Red Bulls the past three seasons, gone. Intensely popular head coach Mike Petke, the first to lead the team to any sort of hardware, fired.
Yes, the Red Bulls came into this season flying under the radar as far as expectations were concerned. That, however, clearly is no longer the case.
In the midst of a five-game unbeaten run with three wins and two draws to start the season, New York have turned their fair share of heads and perhaps changed some minds in the process. Whether they’re feared or underestimated, however, the Red Bulls are doing their best to maintain the status quo established when they first convened this preseason.
“It doesn’t really change what we’re trying to do everyday,” new head coach Jesse Marsch told reporters after a recent training session in preparation for Sunday’s nationally televised home match against the LA Galaxy (5 pm ET; ESPN2). “We still try to stay true to who we are and how we’re moving things along. We have to be aware of the fact that teams are going to scout us and now know how we’re playing.
“They’re going to address it in their own way, but we’re trying to every day stick to who we want to be and how we want to play. I don’t think it changes things that much other than we have to be aware of [the fact that] teams are going to come here to compete and try to win.”
Now sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, New York are suddenly a side that opposing teams undoubtedly circle on their calendar. But the Red Bulls aren’t letting it satiate their appetite for further success.
“The thing for us is not to get ahead of ourselves,” said Sacha Kljestan, one of Marsch’s key offseason pick-ups. “It’s still too early to say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re on top of the East,’ and all that. Like I said, we’re going to play with that chip on our shoulder because we felt that a lot of people doubted us from the beginning. Now we have a lot of respect because we’re the last unbeaten team and things like that, but we’re still going to have that chip on our shoulders.”
Proving the doubters wrong has been a rallying cry for this team after many had predicted a down year for a side no longer graced with a star-studded lineup and without its 2013 Supporters' Shield-winning coach. And while the outside voices may have been overwhelmingly negative in the lead up to the current campaign, that negativity never made its way within the RBNY locker room.
“We always had confidence in belief in our team,” captain Dax McCarty told MLSsoccer.com. “From the first week of preseason, the coaches did a good job of making sure that guys knew that this was going to be a very good team. The way we were going to play and the way we were going to dictate the game and press teams was always going to make us a very tough team to beat. We always believed it.”
As goalkeeper Luis Robles points out, the lack of league-wide respect was hardly a surprise, making it easier to make their presence known from day one. Now, new challenges have presented themselves for a New York team looking to continue to flip the script.
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“Our training staff has done a great job of preparing us for what was going to happen,” Robles said. “During preseason, they said that [teams] were going to take us for granted. They’re not going to give us the respect that we deserve because we’re not carrying the sort of names that brought immediate respect, and we’re going to surprise a lot of teams. And that’s exactly what happened. Now the narrative has changed.”
But it’s still a chip, Robles said, that is firmly implanted on the team’s shoulder.
“It’s something that we said during preseason and continue to say because there’s always going to be critics against the way we play,” he said. “I know that some of our critics are waiting for us to slip up. It’s a long season, so there are going to be bad stretches and moments where people are going to start to break us down and say, ‘They’re not what their first five games were.’
“That’s fine. We’re looking forward to the adversity because it’s in those adversities that our character will be revealed and I’m very confident in the character of this team.”