The New York Red Bulls finished the 2018 MLS season in historic fashion. Their season, for now, is the single best season in MLS history, gaining a record breaking 71 points. Despite their fall from grace in the playoffs, expectations for the 2019 season were soaring.
With ten starters returning, the team was poised to hit the ground running. Instead, the Red Bulls stumbled out of the gate. Contributions from Bradley Wright-Phillips, and the 2018 league best defense, confounded many observers. To make matters worse, the team lost Wright-Phillips to injury, and Kaku to a costly suspension all while sitting near the bottom of the league table.
The Red Bulls stared at the precipice, leaving the team and fans with many questions and few answers.
“In tough times, we don’t make excuses like some teams do. Injuries. Losing players. We don’t talk about that,” Chris Armas said following practice Tuesday. “We’ve heard about [Miguel] Almirón being missing. I have not mentioned once Tyler Adams being missing. We don’t talk about that. The guys that have stepped up, the guys we’ve been watching everyday… we’ve had to try to manage when to get them going, when to implement them in games, when to make changes.”
Expecting the Red Bulls to curl into a ball, falling further down the table, and facing another doomed season in a year ending with 9 (The two worst seasons in club history came in 1999, and 2009.), the Red Bulls turned towards their depth. They have now won four of their last five matches, and crept above the playoff line for the first time this season.
“We have a young core that’s very hungry and they work hard with the USL team,” said Sean Davis at the Red Bulls Training Facility Tuesday. “They work hard with the first team in training, and so they want to prove that they belong and they’ve done that. And of course it helps the first team guys that are putting in a lot of minutes because we have a lot of midweek games and it’s not easy to turn it around, especially with the way that we play and the numbers that we put up in terms of running.”
Performances from players like Andreas Ivan, Omir Fernandes, Derrick Etienne Jr., Tom Barlow, and Brian White all catch the eye, but the work of role players on the backline has been equally important during this stretch. Amro Tarek and Sean Nealis anchoring the defense against powerful teams like FC Dallas or Atlanta United FC might have sent shivers down Red Bulls fans spines weeks ago, but their gritty performances are winning fans over.
Nealis spent most of the 2019 season, thus far, at New York Red Bulls II, anchoring a strong defensive unit and learning the Red Bulls system. His unlikely inclusions with the MLS squad may have risen out of circumstance, but his continued inclusion comes from merit. It is a story that closely resembles Aaron Long’s rise to MLS Defender of the Year award and US Men’s National Team selections.
“It’s a testament to the program here,” said Nealis at practice. “I mean, the USL coaches are great, the first team coaches are great, they help everybody get along, and you’ve seen it countless times, with Aaron, with Tom, with me, so hopefully that trend can continue.”
Despite lacking flashy high-priced signings, the Red Bulls compete at the highest levels of MLS, largely upon spreading the wealth across the roster, adding depth at multiple positions, and setting clear expectations for players to follow. So losing players like Wright-Phillips, Kaku, Long, or Parker, are just another day for the group. When bad results stack up, a group can wither under the strain. The Red Bulls managed to avoid that.
“I think we’re proud of the young group we’ve been able to assemble and their willingness to really go after the game,” said Davis. “I think that says a lot about the club and you know we’re proud of those guys.”
Like using a fresh pair of eyes to investigate a nagging problem, the Red Bulls ability to turn to role players makes it easier for the team to course correct. If the previous years of evidence didn’t provide those same answers, if you wait long enough, they will pull off this trick again.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography