With Slide Over, Red Bulls Focus on Not Sliding Back

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

Red Bulls logoThe skid is over. The playoff berth is clinched. With two games remaining in Major League Soccer‘s regular season, the New York Red Bulls now have to figure a way not to backslide.

“It’s momentum, from here on,” Bradley Wright-Phillips said after Saturday’s one-sided, 3-0, win over Western Conference leaders the Vancouver Whitecaps. “This is a good performance. This is the standard we need to be putting out every week. The next two games we need to show the same kind of grit and the same kind of finishing and defending.”

In a season that saw the Red Bulls muddle through with a .500 record in the first three months of the season, then go on a streak of 10 wins in 12 games only to stagger through August and September with a nine-game winless streak, New York (13-12-7, 46 points) finally clinched the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference with its win over Vancouver (15-11-6, 51).

It is the eighth straight year New York has reached the playoffs, the 14th in 15 years, but four points behind the fifth-placed Columbus Crew with only two games left, it likely will enter the playoffs as the lowest seed in club history.

Starting from the top of the seedings hasn’t worked out for the Red Bulls. In 2013, when they won the Supporters’ Shield with the best record in the league, but was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Houston. Two years later, again with the Supporters’ Shield New York was sent home by the Columbus Crew in the semifinals.

New York came close to the MLS Cup final was in 2014, when it started as a fourth seed and ended up within a goal of the championship game against New England. In a strange twist, the Red Bulls did advance to the title game, in 2008, when under the league’s playoff system then, New York was shifted to the Western Conference — losing to Columbus in MLS Cup.

“At the beginning of the season we had some hiccups,” captain Sacha Kljestan said. “We talked about [how] winning the East or winning the Supporters’ Shield was not a realistic goal this year with a lot of new young players that were going to play a lot of minutes and have a little bit of a learning curve.

“Then me, Brad [Wright-Phillips] and Luis [Robles] talked about having the pressure might be off as we get into the playoffs and we are a little bit of a lower seed. I didn’t think we’d be a sixth seed. I thought we’d be a little bit higher than that, but yeah, the pressure is off in a small way. Hopefully, we can surprise some people and go on a run.”

“In the past couple of years, at least since I’ve been here, we’ve had an easier time getting into the playoffs,” said defender Connor Lade, 27, who along with goalkeepers Robles and Ryan Meara have been with the Red Bulls since 2012 and are the longest-tenured members of the roster.

“It was more comfortable. We didn’t have to grind as much as this year. That will be a recipe for success for us.”

Some are a little more reticent to declare that reversing the order of the regular-season finish will reverse the outcome of the playoffs.

“I thought about that millions of times this season, I don’t want to jinx that,” Wright-Phillips said. “I want to see that through hard work as well. No matter where we finish it’s going to be tough, but if the gods are with us, hopefully, we can be a Portland or a Seattle, hopefully.’

Regardless, the nine straight games of late collapses of own-goals and other snafus ended Saturday night, and nobody was happier to see that than Coach Jesse Marsch.

“The timing of the schedule to September ending, I think all of us were like ‘September’s over’ ”, Marsch said. “Time to move on. Disappointment, but we’ve turned the page and I think looking forward there are real possibilities ahead.”