The New York Red Bulls just clinched their playoff berth, but there is still plenty of work to be done in order for them to have a chance at making some serious noise in the postseason.
The Red Bulls rounded out the Eastern Conference's playoff participants on Saturday by delivering a convincing 3-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps at Red Bull Arena. Three different players found the back of the net for sixth-placed New York, and the victory snapped their frustrating winless run of eight games.
While the Red Bulls got a sorely-needed triumph in impressive fashion, plenty of observers will still be skeptical over just how good the club can be. The Red Bulls have looked a shadow of themselves since mid-August, as they have struggled to piece together consistent performances. Their defense has been especially poor during this stretch, leaking 16 goals and looking nothing like the backline that posted three clean sheets in six games played from mid-June to late July.
Saturday's shutout against the current top dog in the Western Conference should instill some confidence in Jesse Marsch's men, but what should not go lost in the post-game hoopla is that Vancouver were missing two key pieces in center back Kendall Waston and dynamic attacker Yordy Reyna. Both players are away on international duty, with Costa Rica and Peru respectively, and both lineup regulars were sorely missed.
Waston's bruising style of play could have, at the very least, helped limit striker Bradley Wright-Phillips a bit. Wright-Phillips ran amok against the Whitecaps, even scoring via a nice clipped effort just before the hour mark after racing in on goal largely unbothered. Reyna, meanwhile, could have made Vancouver more dangerous and deadly on the counter.
Of course, New York can only go up against the players in front of them, so they deserve credit for getting the job done. Still, the team needs to show that this was not just a flash in the pan and that it is getting back to playing its best in the final two matches of the regular season. Their opponents should provide a stiff test, too, as the Red Bulls are set to host high-flying Atlanta United before visiting arch-rivals D.C. United in what could very well be an emotional final match at RFK Stadium.
How Marsch's side fares in those games will tell us a lot about its chances in the postseason. The Red Bulls boast some very good talent in Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan, and Luis Robles, but those three leaders will need more help if the club is to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Toronto FC and bitter foes New York City FC in the pressure-packed playoffs.
The good news for the Red Bulls is that Daniel Royer, who scored the winner on Saturday, is back from injury and looking more and more like his old self. Seasoned center back Aurelien Collin may return to the fold some time soon, too. They both can help New York move up a level in quality. So can Gonzalo Veron, who keeps being used as a supersub despite showing in recent weeks that he can be a difference-maker when given the opportunity.
Talent on paper means nothing, however, if you do not go out on the field and execute. The Red Bulls know that better than most after years of falling short in the postseason, but are hoping that they can improve rapidly in the coming weeks so that this year will be different.