By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 7, 2013) US Soccer Players – Let's ask an obvious and unflattering question of the New York Red Bulls in 2013. Did they do enough after yet another reshuffling of personnel to consider this season a success? After last night's playoff exit to the lamentable Houston Dynamo, the answer is at best a maybe, and it may be a flat out no.
After all, this is the Major League Soccer club that leaves check marks in all the appropriate boxes. Spends money? Sure, they've got the highest payroll in the league. Quality stadium? Arguably the best in the business at least in theory. Supportive fan base? Considering what's happened with New York/New Jersey's MLS club over its history, even that gets a check regardless of whether or not they play to anywhere near a capacity crowd.
At Red Bull Arena - by design the most European of any stadium in North America - 22,264 paid to see their team try to advance at home in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. What they saw was the Houston Dynamo wait out yet another team that had the advantage on paper and on the field for extended periods of time. That didn't turn into enough goals to take the series, even as the Bulls (hey, if the league's official site goes with that so will we) setup shop in front of the Dynamo goal. That happens, even if it seems like it often happens to New York.
It's worth considering that New York overachieved during the regular season, taking a step too far too soon in what should be the Mike Petke era with this club. Petke, dropping the interim tag last January, has had less than a calendar year to make the team reflective of what he wants. We know with New York that any coach's want list needs to meld with team and Red Bull soccer personnel. Nothing happens in isolation here, and that could be a strength. Still, it takes time and certainly more than one abbreviated preseason. Petke became New York's latest answer after the combine and the SuperDraft, and no one should downplay the difference between being the head coach and the interim head coach.
Historically, 'Red Bulls' and 'patient' normally comes with an ‘aren't’ thrown in between. This is a club with a reputation they earned and one they've taken steps to keep. There's a no nonsense approach from management to a team where nonsense is a hallmark. Pick your curse, your underachievement, your fluke, your plain bad luck. It's certainly not what you put on the season ticket brochure, but it's as much the MLS brand of soccer in the greater New York metropolitan area as anything else.
The 2013 vintage meant New York emerging from a group of 'will they or won't they' contenders to take the Eastern Conference title and the Supporters' Shield. Somewhat fortunately, the Supporters' Shield waited for the final day of the season. That limited the time for the rest of MLS to wonder how long it would take before New York reverted to form. When they were the surprise opponent in MLS Cup a few years ago it almost made sense. If New York was ever going to contest for a championship, it might as well be the result of a fluke run through the playoffs. Even if they're the most expensive team in the league, nobody outside of the club expects them to play from a position of strength.
Under Petke's leadership and coaching decisions, that almost changed this season. The timing couldn't have been better. The New York Red Bulls now face an existential threat from MLS's next expansion team. Though from the beginning Red Bulls management took the company line that whatever happens with NYCFC is good for the market and the league, anybody looking at it from the outside is likely to draw a slightly different conclusion. The Red Bulls have one more season as the only MLS team in the New York metropolitan market playing an MLS schedule. When that changes, so do the expectations.
In the best case scenario, the Red Bulls are in the position to tell their own story. It's that position of strength that's needed, drawing a sharp contrast between New York's newer team co-owned by the biggest sports brand in the city and a Premier League power that's on American television every week of their season. They get their by winning, putting victories behind an early Red Bull ideal. Remember, this is the club that fired Bruce Arena in the middle of his contract for not winning a championship with a team that was overachieving by giving a noticeably better New England a tough 180 minutes in that Eastern Conference semifinal.
Bringing us back to my question. For the Red Bulls ideal of soccer, 2013 is another failure. Once again, we see a team built to dominate in this league fail to do so. The Supporters' Shield is no relief for the pressure this club put on itself the minute it changed ownership and its name. That might not be the worst thing for 2014.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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