The New York Red Bulls and head coach Chris Armas rewrote the history books together in 2018, earning the most wins (22) and points (71) ever in a Major League Soccer season. They enter the MLS Cup Playoffs as one of the tournament favorites, something that has not always worked out well in the past.
But, there is a strong belief at the moment from both the players and the fans about a successful title quest. Ten years ago New York made their first-ever MLS Cup final, but ironically there were very few who believed that they would make it that far when the postseason began.
New York Red Bulls’ magical postseason run to the 2008 MLS Cup final
Following the 2007 campaign, manager Bruce Arena would depart New York and eventually make his way to the Los Angeles Galaxy. Juan Carlos Osorio would take over a team with plenty of talent, but perhaps short on consistency in 2008. Teenage sensation Jozy Altiodre was off to Spain that year, putting even more pressure on designated player Juan Pablo Ángel to produce in the attack.
The Red Bulls would actually finish with a losing record that year, going 10-11-9 in a 30-game MLS regular season. At the time, wild card spots would go to the best sides regardless of conference, and New York were lucky to squeak into the final spot just one point ahead of the Colorado Rapids. The squad would ultimately have to go through the Western Conference in order to make the final, and confidence was anything but high.
But if there is one thing that the New York Red Bulls have proven (for better or worse), they are full of surprises.
Defeating the Dynamo
The playoffs would begin against the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference semifinals. Houston were coming off two consecutive MLS Cup titles in 2006 and 2007, and were picked by many pundits to add a third league trophy. The first leg at Giants Stadium produced a decent result for New York, as goals from Kei Kamara and Ángel ended the match as a 1-1 draw.
A trip to Texas was a genuinely daunting task, but a young Dane Richards stunned the champions at home. An early goal from the Jamaican winger had the Red Bulls headed in the right direction, and they would run away with a thrilling 3-0 upset. The 30,000 fans in attendance became silent. Goals from Ángel and John Wolyniec sealed the win, and Osorio’s side were on to the next round.
Surviving Salt Lake
MLS has made a confusing habit out of changing the playoff format throughout the years, and the conference finals were in the midst of an odd period. New York’s Western Conference final against Real Salt Lake would be only one match as opposed to a two-leg series.
A strong defensive squad, Salt Lake made it difficult for the Red Bulls’ offense to create many chances. But a quick counterattack in the first half would put the winner on a platter for New York’s Dave van den Bergh, and he would score one of the most important goals in club history. The Dutch international would not stay with the team for very long, but his timely playoff goal remains in the memory for many Metro fans.
Salt Lake would battle back in search of an equalizer, but fate would be with the visitors on that November evening in Utah.
Conceding to the Crew
Unfortunately, their good fortune would run out in the final. New York would travel to California to face the Columbus Crew. Columbus had captured the Supporters’ Shield in 2008, and featured quality throughout their lineup.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto pulled the strings for the Crew attack, and they could be an overwhelming group. Alongside former MetroStar Eddie Gaven, Robbie Rogers and Alejandro Moreno, it was all too much for the Red Bulls to defeat. Columbus’ back-line, anchored by captain Frankie Hejduk and Chad Marshall, were able to limit New York in the final third.
Wolyniec ultimately scored a goal, but the Red Bulls would fall 3-1 in Carson.
It was certainly an unlikely run from an unlikely team. One only has to look at the 2009 campaign to see how remarkable their postseason play was. The 2009 season saw an abysmal year. The Red Bulls nearly set a record as having the worst season in MLS history. The team fired Osorio midsummer. Always one to tinker with his lineup selections, results were simply not backing up the Colombian coach’s constant changes to the team on a weekly basis.
Is this the year?
Now, New York have qualified for the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season. That mark represents a stability in various ways, along with the club’s strong academy system. While the big-name signings of Thierry Henry or Rafa Márquez may be a thing of the past, the Red Bulls have posted the best MLS record ever in 2018 by doing things their way. Nobody expected much of anything from the team in the fall of 2008, but that will certainly not be the case now.
The New York Red Bulls were on the brink of capturing their first MLS Cup title ten years ago, during a superb playoff performance that few would have ever predicted. With postseason glory once again on the horizon this week for the club, maybe this is when they finish the job.