The New York Red Bulls’ 12th MLS Cup playoff appearance in a row is perhaps the most unlikely yet.
With the youngest team in Major League Soccer and a coach in its first full season, the Red Bulls seemed pretty safe in an early offseason as late as mid-September. A 2-1 road loss to the Columbus Crew, with the Red Bulls leading by 16 minutes, lowered their record to 6-11-5 (23 points), eight points from pace to the final Eastern Conference postseason spot with 12 games to play .
Currently, head coach Gerhard Struber described the match as “like a youth team against adults.”
If 2021 was to be about more than just development and identity, it was time for the Red Bulls to grow up.
“I think in the middle of the year we had a little disappointment, a little break in what we were doing,” defender Sean Nealis told Newsday. “We were kind of looking from the outside and looking in, and we kind of had to reset our focus.”
The turnaround that followed put the club still on the hunt for its first MLS Cup title right back in the playoffs, which opened at 2:30 p.m. Saturday with the Red Bulls visiting the Philadelphia Union in a win-or-go-home game. Starting with a 4-0 win over Inter Miami on Sept. 17, the Red Bulls lost just one game down the stretch, picking up 25 points and holding on to the final postseason spot with a draw away to Nashville SC on Decision Day.
“We got together in Miami and worked a little bit together on how we can win games and how we can turn our season around, and since then we’ve obviously gone on races, and luckily we’re in the playoffs,” Nealis said.
Nealis, who graduated from Massapequa and Hofstra, has cemented himself as the leader of RBNY’s backline this year, starting 28 of the club’s 34 matches. The 24-year-old said that it was the key to the team turning the course, concentrating on doing the simple things correctly.
“I think it’s about doing the basics well, and when we have the lead, we trust each other, communicate well, maybe if you need to slow down the game, or if you need to speed up the game, take your time. on the set pieces, that kind of thing, “Nealis said. “I think we got down to the basics and just tried to reassess ourselves in those situations, what we can do better in transition moments, to communicate early and to be in better positions early. I think we through the last few weeks have somehow done it. the basics, which in a way helped lift our game and push us into the playoffs. “
Struber, who took charge last year a few days before the Red Bulls’ playoff loss in the first round, has long stated that his primary goal this season was to bring the organizational identity back to the New York club. With Red Bull’s distinctive high-energy style giving teams fits late, he believes the campaign has been a success in that regard. This does not mean that he is writing off the chance to achieve something bigger against the Union.
“I think right now in our moment, with all that we’ve learned the last few months, we can beat Philly. This is the big goal on Saturday,” Struber said. “We’re not driving to Philly [because] it’s nice to be in the playoffs. I think right now it’s time to go to the next round and we know – great respect for Philly – but we win on Saturday, that’s it.
Said Nealis, “The New York Red Bulls have high expectations and hopefully we can replace them in the next few weeks.”