Fishkin: The 2016 Season Ends Just Like Every Other

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by MARK FISHKIN

The Montreal Impact battered and bruised the New York Red Bulls into submission last week, prematurely ending a roller coaster season which saw fantastic highs and miserable lows.

As the offseason begins for the two-time regular-season Eastern Conference champions, Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch have to ask themselves: where lies the formula for postseason success?

2016 got off to a dreadful start for New York, who sat dead last in the East after a 1-6 start. Bradley Wright-Phillips (ironically) couldn’t score. The defense couldn’t keep a clean sheet. Matters were bleak.

The arrival of Aurelien Collin did incredible wonders to settle down the back line, and Curtis has to be commended for snatching the Frenchman from Orlando in what had to be the steal of the early half of the season. The boys started to turn the season around with back-to-back wins over OCSC and a 4-0 shellacking of Dallas that started to give Red Bulls fans a glimmer of hope that 2016 wouldn’t be a total loss.

Obviously, May 21st will be a day that will live in the hearts of New York fans forever, as the club waltzed into Yankee Stadium and left ninety minutes later with with a historic seven-goal haul and a new term for fans to add in team lore: “The Red Bull Wedding.” Dax McCarty and Bradley Wright-Phillips notched fantastic braces, and subs Alex Muyl, Gideon Baah, and Gonzalo Veron each found the net, leaving NYCFC no other choice but to lay down and quit on their own field.

While the Red Bulls set a new record for regular season wins (13 of 17) at home, the road was a different story in 2016.  A late blown lead midweek in Salt Lake, followed by another on the last kick of the match in Columbus days later set the stage for another of the season’s themes: New York’s inability to close out matches. Nine times the Red Bulls gave away points from leading positions in the league and Open Cup, giving fans the impression that no lead was ever safe, and every match became an exercise in hand-wringing.

The club’s first CONCACAF Champions League appearance was a successful one, as New York emerged from group play and advanced to the semifinals for the first time in club history. While the Red Bulls won both of their home matches against Central American opposition in nervy fashion, fans were generally ambivalent about the competition, staying home in droves. Perhaps the Quarterfinal against Vancouver in February will draw more attention.

Empty seats were a frequent sight at Red Bull Arena all season long. The club enjoyed just one sellout throughout 2016. The reported attendance numbers did generate all-time highs in the RBA era but the gate never reflected it. The schedule-maker didn’t help by giving New York only six of seventeen Saturday night matches, but the club’s no-show rate was among the highest in the league, and did absolutely nothing to dispel the commonly held notion that the Red Bulls “don’t have many fans.”

Despite the slow start and the blown leads, New York powered to another first-place finish in the East behind an incredible 16-match league unbeaten streak from July through the end of the regular season. While there were a number of results in doubt, the Red Bulls’ 9-0-7 finish generated plenty of magical moments, including a 4-1 bashing of NYCFC in the lone home Hudson Derby match of the year, the first win ever against the Vancouver Whitecaps in club history and a 3-2 home win over Columbus that all but wrapped up the conference with a match to play.

2016 was a year of personal achievements in addition to team accolades. BWP’s second Golden Boot in three season capped off a year where the Englishman became the club’s all-time leading scorer. Sacha Kljestan reached the 20-assist mark, the first to do so since Carlos Valderrama. Luis Robles led the league in clean sheets and holds the all-time league mark for consecutive starts. Dax McCarty is now the club leader in minutes played.

The season illustrated the immense depth that Ali Curtis has built on the roster. Despite season-ending injuries to Gideon Baah and Connor Lade, and a significant injury absences by Dax McCarty, Damien Perrinelle, Ronald Zubar, Kemar Lawrence, and the newly-signed Daniel Royer, New York was able to shuffle the deck and finish on top of the East.

Entering the postseason with a bye raised Red Bulls fans’ hopes that 2016 would be the year that the club ended it’s MLS Cup drought. However, the Montreal Impact played just the type of game that New York has struggled with since Jesse Marsch’s arrival; physical and distruptive. In the away leg, Montreal finished it’s one chance, and the Red Bulls missed theirs. At home, Kljestan’s poor penalty kick opened the door for the Impact, and when Nacho Piatti’s savable blast eluded Robles, the series was over.

Afterwards, Piatti called the Red Bulls “weak in the playoffs.” Given the club’s performance against Montreal and Columbus last season, he has a point. Since New York plays at full speed for 90 minutes in every match, there isn’t “another gear” to kick in when the playoffs start and the margin for error dips to zero.

Jesse Marsch lamented that his club “led in nearly every statistical category” in the home match against the Impact, but in the postseason, your stars have to show up and convert chances. For the last two postseasons,  New York’s stars haven’t.  That’s why the club, as talented as it is, is still missing an MLS Cup.

Was 2016 a success for the Red Bulls? The club won plenty of games and set club and individual records.  While New York’s stars delivered big numbers, the Red Bulls’ wingers numbers sagged this season. New York is in the final eight clubs in CONCACAF for the first time, and will be going back to the CCL next summer. However, New York didn’t win a piece of hardware in 2016, and gave away points that would have easily secured another Supporters Shield.

Ali Curtis has said that there will be changes to a roster that largely stood pat between 2015 and 2016. Gonzalo Veron will return. Aurelien Collin is out of contract.

In any case, the shortest offseason in club history has begun. And already, February 22nd looms.

See you then.