The New York Red Bulls have never been able to do it. The MetroStars could not do it either. With a franchise cursed for nearly 20 years, what makes this season different?
With Saturday's 2-1 loss at D.C. United, the Red Bulls advanced to the Conference finals for the first time since 2008. In all likelihood, this sets the Red Bulls up for a showdown with the New England Revolution in the MLS final four.
That means with three positive results, the Red Bulls could take home the MLS title for the first time in the history of the club. Though the franchise's history in the playoffs is less than stellar (to put it kindly), there is a different feel with this group; this year's New York Red Bulls can win the MLS Cup.
Though New York had a rough first half of the season, in the second half of the season and the playoffs, four things have emerged that suggest the Red Bulls can go all the way.
In New York's first 25 regular season matches, the club only managed three clean sheets. The Red Bulls were not—and are not—a spectacular defensive team. But the team's defensive record up to that point was acceptable.
In the Red Bulls' 26th regular-season match, manager Mike Petke sent his team out in a different formation to the one he had used previously.
Gone was the 4-4-2 that carried the team to the Supporters' Shield in 2013. Rather, against 2013's MLS champions, Sporting KC, Petke's men lined up in a 4-2-3-1.
On September 6, Eric Alexander and Dax McCarty lined up as holding central midfielders behind an attacking-midfield three of Lloyd Sam on the right, Peguy Luyindula in the middle, and Thierry Henry on the left. The Red Bulls won 2-1.
Petke has only altered that central-midfield pairing once since its introduction, which resulted in a 4-0 loss at LA Galaxy.
The numbers since that change speak for themselves. Prior to the second leg against DC United, Matt Doyle at MLSSoccer.com wrote:
In the 10 games (including two playoff games) these two guys have played together in central midfield, New York have scored 20 goals and allowed 10.
In the other 26 games this season, they've scored 39 and allowed 40. This team has become significantly more dangerous in attack, but it's in defense where they've made the real difference.
McCarty explained the success of the tactical change to Brian Lewis at the New York Post:
When Eric came in and tactically we said our main job is just to protect the back four and make sure we’re solid defensively, the whole team thrived off of that. The attacking players said now we have a little bit more defensive cover, so we can go and be more dangerous going forward. And the defense said we can take more risks because we have two guys that we know will be in front of us.
This midfield will give the Red Bulls the best chance to succeed against New England, a team that has a terrifying midfield trio of its own: Lee Nguyen, Jermaine Jones, and Scott Caldwell.
The Red Bulls will need McCarty and Alexander to hold their own against these three. New York has superior wingers and a more successful striker than the Revolution, but if Alexander and McCarty cannot keep the team in the match, it will not matter.
At every position on the pitch, the Red Bulls have the ability to cover for injury or suspension.
Of course, that is not to say that the club has a replacement for Henry or Jamison Olave—arguably the team's two most important players—in terms of ability. But at essentially every other position, the Red Bulls have the necessary cover. Even the loss of Henry or Olave would not be absolutely devastating.
Take the case of Roy Miller, who will have to sit out the first leg of the Conference finals. Ambroise Oyongo, who started 11 matches for New York in the regular season, figures to fill in for the Costa Rican, without setting the team back.
Across the pitch, this is the case. Saturday's bench, consisting of Ryan Meara, Armando, Connor Lade, Chris Duvall, Oyongo, Tim Cahill, and Ruben Bover, is filled with players who have proven themselves to be useful contributors at the MLS level.
Meara and Lade have been out of the picture often this season, but both had tremendous rookie seasons, and Lade has recently worked himself back into Petke's good graces.
Armando and Duvall have both been starters at times this season, and though they have since been replaced, they are still both respectable backups.
Tim Cahill, last season's club MVP, has had a down year but still represents a threat in the air offensively and is a hard worker defensively.
The 35-year-old Frenchman has been a frustrating player at times during his two-year tenure with the Red Bulls. Luyindula is New York's best playmaker, excepting Henry, and he picked up seven assists in 863 minutes of action in the 2013 season.
But when the team played in the 4-4-2, Petke faced one of two issues when using Luyindula. If deployed as a striker, his woeful finishing ability quickly became apparent—Luyindula scored only one goal last season, which came from a penalty given to him by Henry at the end of a blowout victory.
Henry and the Red Bulls hoped that goal would give the misfiring Frenchman some confidence. He did not score again during the regular season or playoffs.
Because of Luyindula's scoring troubles, and in an attempt to get the most out of him as a playmaker, Petke sometimes shifted him to a role in the center of midfield. While his role as a deep-lying midfielder suited his playmaking abilities, the role asked too much of Luyindula defensively.
With the shift to the 4-2-3-1, though, Luyindula has found a perfect home, playing in the center of the three-man attacking midfield.
The former PSG player did well in that role during the regular season, but he has launched to new heights in the postseason.
The Red Bulls have scored five goals during the playoffs, and Luyindula has factored in all of them. Against Sporting KC, he came off the bench and provided the secondary assist for both the equalizer and match-winning goal.
Petke rewarded that performance by handing Luyindula a start against D.C. In the first half, Luyindula shielded a defender from a pass on its way to Bradley Wright-Phillips, leading to New York's first goal. In the second half, Luyindula slotted home a crucial second goal after finding himself one on one with the 'keeper.
In the second leg against DC, Luyindula scored the crucial away goal, directing home a cross from Henry.
Franco Panizo reported that Petke said of Luyindula:
He’s not doing anything different than he’s done throughout the two years here. ... He wasn’t always a starter and he wasn’t happy about that, which he shouldn’t [be], but now we’re all, including him, getting the rewards of what he’s doing.
One can appreciate Petke's sentiment, but the fact of the matter is that Luyindula would not have scored either of the goals he has notched this postseason last season. Without those goals, the Red Bulls' season would be over.
But Luyindula did score, and he is playing with more confidence than ever.
Historically, the Red Bulls have folded in the playoffs. Last season, it was an Olave red card and a foolish giveaway by Ibrahim Sekagya that doomed the club against San Jose.
Two years ago, it was encroachment on a Kenny Cooper penalty kick and a Rafa Marquez red card.
In 2010, it was a complete breakdown against San Jose Earthquakes in front of the home crowd after a tremendous performance in San Jose.
This year, it could so easily have happened again. But it did not.
In the play-in match against Sporting KC, former iterations of New York Red Bulls would have folded when Dom Dwyer put KC in front despite New York being the better team through the first 50 minutes. Instead, Petke made some crucial substitutions and the Red Bulls kept their heads up.
When Wright-Phillips equalized in the 77th minute, it was no less than New York deserved. When he struck again in the 90th minute, the comeback was complete.
Similarly, the Red Bulls could have folded after D.C.—the better team in the first half of the second leg—closed the deficit to one.
Instead, New York stuck to their game plan: do not sit too deep, play defense first and convert when the chances come on the counter.
It worked to perfection.
The Red Bulls will now feel that they've proven to the league and to themselves that they can deal with adversity.
There are a few other, notable reasons for the Red Bulls to feel like they can go all the way this year:
- They've beaten the Revolution twice this year, including in New England.
- The Red Bulls beat Seattle this season and drew at Real Salt Lake. Both teams are potential finals opponents.
- Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave will almost certainly play during the postseason, a change from the regular season.
- New York has league-leading goalscorer Wright-Phillips.
The Red Bulls/Metrostars franchise and its fans have spent nearly 20 years waiting for a team that could bring a title home. This year's team, though not perfect, is clicking tactically, has depth, has Peguy Luyindula on fire and perhaps for the first time ever has the right attitude in the postseason.
The Red Bulls can do it. They can win the MLS Cup.