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Red Bulls defy odds and team perception

Team captain Dax McCarty scores against DC United. (AP Photo)
Team captain Dax McCarty scores against DC United. (AP Photo)

By Rohan Ahluwalia
Staff Writer

New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer (MLS) were supposed to finally suffer from the mistakes that management has made in the past. The local franchise, entering its 20th season, was  at arms with fans who were disappointed with the ownership running the team. From firing a fan favorite head coach, the retirement of two of the best players in team history and releasing almost every player who did well the previous season — everything seemed to be sour with the original New York soccer team.

To make matters worse, a new expansion MLS team, New York City FC, promised to promote their team better than the Red Bulls ever did. Everything looked bleak for the Red Bulls entering the 2015 season.

Now, seven months after the beginning of the season, the New York Red Bulls will begin their playoff campaign on Sunday, Nov. 1, after finishing the regular season as the team with the best record league wide. For finishing with the top record, the team was awarded the Supporters’ Shield, which is given out annually to the team with the best record. New York City FC, meanwhile, ended their first ever season in seventh place in the Eastern conference, and thus, did not even qualify for the playoffs. This is truly not what anyone expected at all.

After the conclusion of the 2014 season, the Red Bulls were quick to make changes to their team, which was only a goal away from reaching the MLS Cup Final. Team captain, and all-time leading goalscorer, Thierry Henry, announced that he would retire while the team’s other marquee player — a player whose full salary did not count toward the salary cap — Tim Cahill, left to go to China. The team also got rid of starting defenders Armando Lozano and Jamison Olave while a lot of reserve players were also released. Replacements for these players were Damien Perrinelle, former American international soccer player Sacha Kljestan and Mike Grella, an American who played in England for the last six years.

Despite the Red Bulls not replacing the two marquee players, fans were pleased with the other moves the team was making — until January 2015. In December 2014, it was announced that the Red Bulls had signed former MLS player Ali Curtis as their technical director. His first decision as director was to fire head coach Mike Petke. Petke was a cult icon for Red Bulls fans. A former defender for the Red Bulls before he became a coach, Petke won the team their first trophy in 2013 and he had instilled a strong mentality within the Red Bulls that fans had never seen before.

The firing of Petke seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back as Red Bull fans became outraged, many returning their season tickets, saying they would become fans of New York City FC.

Rumors were already flying that the Red Bull corporation in Austria was going to cut funding from the New York soccer team and devote more money toward their German soccer team, Red Bull Leipzig. That meant that the Red Bulls would never sign a big world soccer star again and would become a feeder team to the German team, where the young players come to New York and the ones who were good enough would be shipped to Germany. This is a massive no-no for New York sports fans.

The only saving grace for the team was when new head coach, Jesse Marsch, spoke about the upcoming season at a recent press conference and expressed how he genuinely believed in the players he had. This calmed fans down to wait and see what happens to the team when they hit the field in March.

The Red Bulls began their season on March 8, 2015, against Sporting Kansas City and drew the game, 1-1. The team went on to open the first two months of the season undefeated going into May, only three points off the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

To answer to their negative critics, the Red Bulls signed former England international soccer player Shaun Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Veron, a highly rated midfielder from Argentina. With the addition of these two players, the amazing form of off-season signings, the team went on to finish the season in legendary fashion, winning fourteen of their last nineteen games. This included defeating New York City FC, three times out of three.

And it was during the last game of the regular season Sunday, Oct. 25, against the Chicago Fire, that the Red Bulls managed to hold on and win, 2-1. In doing so, they not only earned their first ever victory away to Chicago, but they also earned their second ever trophy in team history as the team with the best record in Major League Soccer heading into the playoffs.

Many soccer commentators were baffled at how the Red Bulls were able to turn probably one of their most disappointing moments in team history at the beginning of year into another trophy. Many credit the new high-pressing style of soccer implemented by Marsch, some credit it to the new signings stepping up in the face of adversity and some just credit it to the other teams in the league underperforming and allowing the Red Bulls to take advantage.

Whatever the reason is for their success, the Red Bulls have managed to prove their critics wrong. The Red Bulls will now enter the MLS playoffs with their heads held high, and there is a sense of belief around this team, both within it and with the fans, that they can now go on and win their first ever MLS Cup championship.

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