Fishkin: Thoughts on A Shield-Winning Season

image, Newyorkredbulls.com

by MARK FISHKIN

As the Red Bulls head home from Chicago with the Supporters Shield in the cargo hold, and before the playoffs kick off, it is the right time to reflect on the season just completed.

I was asked today whether Ali Curtis had ‘winning the Supporters’ Shield out of the box’ in his famous 300-page plan, and the answer most certainly was no. Yet, Curtis is responsible for constructing the best team in MLS this regular season — way ahead of anyone’s schedule. If those reacting in fury to the January Town Hall could see forward 10 months in time, what would they say?

Curtis, so instrumental in writing the player acquisition and allocation rules in the league office, attracted the right mix of talent to build a winner. Surely not the flashiest talent, mind you, but the right pieces which fit together to much success. New York’s Sporting Director was able to shift resources around to get Sacha Kljestan (8G/14A, tied for the most single-season MLS assists in club history) as well as trade two role-players for Felipe (3G/5A) who rebounded from poor play early to serve as a key component in the midfield triangle.

Jesse Marsch, who had something to prove after his dismissal from Montreal, instilled a team first, all-in philosophy around his players. Marsch’s high-pressing system was the star — rather than the players themselves. Sixteen Red Bulls players played at least 500 minutes in 2015, including eight defenders (nine if you count Sal Zizzo who is officially listed as a midfielder). The New York coach preached discipline, effort, and tempo, which worked to wonderful effect. The 2015 Red Bulls were only red-carded three times this year, and were shut out only twice — a testament to the staff.

Bradley Wright-Phillips continued his knack of being in the right place at the right time, scoring 17 goals, good enough for 5th on the league scoring roll. Following up on his Golden Boot season, the humble Englishman has banged in 44 goals over 2014 and 2015, matching Stern John for the most prolific two seasons in MLS history.

Mike Grella has a claim to Newcomer of the Year honors across the league, not only finishing third on the team in scoring, but providing some of the most daring, skillful play seen in MLS this year. With a longer pedigree, Grella would be filling seats across the league. He’s a player that makes fans sit up in their seats when he gets the ball, a knack few players in MLS possess.

Luis Robles, now the winningest Red Bull in league history, has played every MLS minute for New York since September of 2012.  Robles only posted nine shutouts this season, but kept New York in match after match, winning Save of the Week multiple times, and setting a club record for league wins in a single campaign.

Captain Dax McCarty more than doubled his assist tally from last season. McCarty’s work rate, relentless defensive focus, and leadership cannot be discounted a year removed from Thierry Henry.  The Ginger Ninja is now second in all-time minutes in a New York uniform, and with a option year for 2016, may surpass Mike Petke as New York appearance leader next season.

The season started fast out of the gate for the Red Bulls, with a seven-match unbeaten run through April and May. Of course, the fan base, many still enraged after Petke’s removal in January, grew impatient as the club went over a month in late May through June without a league win.  The Red Bulls’ 1-0 win over RSL on June 24th sparked the club to a 14-5-1 closing run, propelling New York to the Shield. In fact, after the home loss to the Whitecaps on June 20th, New York avoided consecutive losses for the rest of the season.

The headiest days for the club this year were, of course, the three victories over the New Kids From the Bronx, and their expensive, out-of-sync lineup.  All three of those matches were played before electric crowds, and garnered headlines from around the soccer world.

Over a span of four weeks in August, the Red Bulls compiled three dominant victories, including a two-nil win over New York City, highlighted by an incredible South Ward tifo and Grella’s nutmeg of Frank Lampard before Felipe scored the insurance goal. Six days later, New York dominated Giovinco and Toronto in a three-nil win. After a slip up in Chicago, the Red Bulls obliterated DC United three-nil on a national broadcast that sent the original New York rivals home in disgrace.

While the club didn’t advance as far as they’d like, this year’s US Open Cup campaign was an opportunity for Jesse Marsch to show the fan base that he “cared” about the tournament. New York blasted the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks with a top-shelf lineup, and followed that up with a four-one takedown of the Cosmos, illustrating to the metro area that New York was indeed red.  A scheduling fiasco made for an awkward kickoff time in the tournaments’ quarterfinal match, where Union keeper John MacCarthy stood on his head to knock the Red Bulls out.

A bright consolation prize came the next night, when sixteen year-old academy product Tyler Adams scored on the Premier League champions Chelsea in a 4-2 Red Bulls win.  Another victory, over Benfica, followed four days later.

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The shield-winning campaign was not without its rough spots, however, as opponents learned to punish New York with speedy wing counters. Statistics-defying losses to the Union, Fire, and Orlando gave some teams a roadmap to beating the Red Bulls. Newcomer Gonzalo Veron has yet to truly fit into the club, though the strong play of Grella ahead of the Argentine DP held him to only 321 minutes and two starts.

Red Bull Arena was a fortress in 2015, as the New York side posted a dozen home wins for the first time in 20 seasons, with losses coming only to Philadelphia, Vancouver, and Orlando.  Los Angeles and Colorado were able to snatch single points in Harrison.

New York won six times and drew four away from Red Bull Arena this year, the third-best road record in the league. In fact, the Red Bulls were the only team with a positive road goal differential (27GF, 25GA) in MLS this season. Signature wins away came at Yankee Stadium, but also at Providence Park (for the first time) and of course, the first-ever win in Bridgeview Sunday night to clinch the Shield.

So where does the story end?  The marathon is over, and now the sprint to MLS Cup begins. All of the Eastern teams save DC & Montreal have beaten New York this season. The Red Bulls cannot face Montreal in the conference semis, which offers a break against the red-hot Didier Drogba. Toronto would be a handful given they boast the league MVP and DPs Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.  DC, while slumping, is a threat regardless of form. If New England gets by United, the Revs, who have beaten New York twice this season, will be a massive challenge.

Whether the ultimate prize is attained on December 6th, or 2015 gets filed away like the other nineteen cupless years the club has given its fans, one thing is clear: this Red Bulls squad have exceeded all expectations and have provided its long suffering and fractured fan base with a tremendous amount to be proud of.  They’ve worked extremely hard, and after 34 matches, the New York Red Bulls are the best team in the league.

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  • BleedingRed

    “New Kids from the Bronx” … thanks for the meme inspiration.

  • RobStyles

    Great post!