The New York Red Bulls exited the practice field Wednesday afternoon looking in better spirits then they had in a while.
It would be hard to blame them. This season, despite minimal roster turnover, the team dropped well back from their record breaking 2018 campaign. Throughout the year, the words consistency and complacency lingered over the club.
The reaction within the group seemed negative, and the Red Bulls’s fans echoed that negativity.
The Red Bulls only glimpse at the top of the table this season came from nearly leading the league in points dropped from winning positions. The Red Bulls ranked second in the league behind only the Vancouver Whitecaps as of September 10th per Dylan Butler’s article on MLSsoccer.com.
There is some poetic justice, that even here, they fall short of the top.
Over the last three matches however, the Red Bulls seem to have figured themselves out, putting together their first solid run of results since their five game unbeaten streak in May. So, what changed?
Speaking to Marc Rzatkowski after practice, he noted that working through these negative experiences has begun to galvanize the team.
“There were a lot of experiences we had to take in this season. A lot of negative things,” said Rzatkowski. “But I think at the end it just makes us stronger and I think that we are, like I said, ready for the most important games. Then we have to be at our highest level and I think we can see that the last few games. I’m really confident that we can transfer it to the next games.”
The answer came during a question about finding consistency defensively down the stretch, but the response piqued my interest. It recalled the early days of the Jesse Marsch Red Bulls. The idea that they needed to prove themselves amongst those that doubted them.
A chip on their shoulder.
Speaking to Brian White about what he has seen while awaiting his fitness to return to the field, it came up again.
“I think the pressure has been building up,” said White. “You know? We had a run of games where we didn’t get the results we wanted, and it was no secret that people were doubting us. I think with our backs against the wall, that’s where we start to shine a little bit. [We] just continue to believe in ourselves as a group.”
So much of the success of the Jesse Marsch era was predicated on this very principle. Whenever the Red Bulls faltered under Marsch, the need for the team to play with a chip on their shoulder seemed to be questioned.
Since Chris Armas took over for Marsch last July, that phrase disappeared from the Red Bulls lexicon. But now, after their worst home record since 2009, it seems to be returning, and just in time. The MLS Playoffs are tailor-made for teams that pick up steam as the season ends, and the single elimination format might prove favorable to team’s carrying momentum into the tournament.
Still, the Red Bulls have no illusions of the expectations most have placed on the squad to continue their playoff futility. For Chris Armas, he’s always felt comfortable being viewed as the underdog.
“I have a Christmas ornament on my tree of Rocky Balboa,” said Armas. “I’ve always felt that way. Like the underdog, and operated in a good way from playing behind, always trying to fight to get on top. And when you get there, always maintain that. Thinking like your number one and fighting like you always have something to prove. That’s something I can relate to.”
Is it possible the Red Bulls put together a dramatic, positive end to the season? As possible as anything else in the strange world of the MLS Playoffs, but it would certainly help to keep that mindset moving forward. Against the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff field, the Red Bulls have a 5-4-3, with most of their wins playing at Red Bull Arena.
The likelihood of any home playoff games remains in doubt, making the task much harder for the team. But if the Red Bulls really have regained the chip on their shoulder, then maybe it is possible.
Armas knows the perception the Red Bulls carry, even at their best, and he shows his contempt for the team’s portrayal.
“I think that the guys know,” said Armas. “I mean, based on a lot of different reasons that I won’t go into, I don’t think anyone think we’re the favorites ever. Even last year I said it. I don’t think it was talked about that much. Not a big deal was made. A record breaking season. Again, it was short lived. Bnd I’m sure we’ll hear a lot of noise if that record is broken. We feel like we are the underdogs, and we have always been around here like we have something to prove, because we do. We’ve never won the championship. So we’re going after it all the time, and I think we work that way. We behave that way, and we believe it.”
The ultimate proof won’t come until after the Red Bulls season ends. They hold the keys to their destiny, in a vehicle powered by their need to prove doubters wrong. Will they finally deliver the fans the most elusive prize, or will the playoffs end in heartbreak as they have since their inception?
The team certainly look stronger now than they have all season, and Armas says they are prepared to prove it.
“[The Team] know that we have to fight for everything we get. We enjoy doing it. We enjoy fighting.“
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography