It Is No Time to Panic For First-Class Red Bulls

There’s a standard of excellence that Red Bull expects from its players and coaches.

That might sound haughty in light of this being a franchise that hasn’t won MLS Cup or a U.S. Open Cup in its 22-year existence, but it’s true. The team that has entered the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s top seed in three of the previous four seasons expects to be in the championship conversation perennially. That’s why a first-class stadium was built, and why a top rate Academy which is now bearing first-team fruit was created.

The philosophy is sound: make business and soccer decisions for the right reasons, display patience, and you’ll build something that’s everlasting. More importantly, titles will be won along the way. An alarm, however, was sounded this week with consecutive road losses for the Red Bulls at Kansas City and Philadelphia. It’s one that better resonates in May than October.

Eleven games into its 2017 season, there is no basis to label this team a championship contender. Having lost as many games as it has won (5-5-1, 16 Points), New York sits in fifth place in the Conference, but with 10 other teams in the East having played fewer games. With squad rotations varying the lineups fielded in losses to Sporting Kansas City and the previously winless Philadelphia Union, they failed to score a goal in both tilts. Luis Robles is playing well and the team has still surrendered 14 goals in its six road games this year. The absence of veteran defender Aurelien Collin, who briefly formed an effective partnership with rookie Aaron Long, should not translate into those numbers, but it has.

“The result is incredibly disappointing,” said the almost always positive Jesse Marsch following Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Philadelphia. In all fairness, the game might have taken a different turn if not for Union goalkeeper Andre Blake’s highlight reel save on Bradley Wright-Phillips in the second half. Robles agreed that if not for Blake’s heroics, the complexion of the game would have changed dramatically. His team instead will carry a 199-minute scoreless drought into another important three-game homestand that begins Sunday against the LA Galaxy.

On our last MSG telecast, I pointed out that it’s never too late. Standings this early in the season are often deceiving, and the 2016 MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders sat 10 points out of a playoff position at one point last year before winning it all with Clint Dempsey sidelined. Teams figure things out. Excellent coaching and formidable leaders hasten that process.

But while the Red Bulls failed to make a statement in their three-games-in-eight-days stretch, defending Eastern Conference champion Toronto FC caught everyone’s attention with a fourth straight win Saturday at Seattle, employing a similar squad rotation, with an equally crunched schedule. Striker Sebastian Giovinco and midfielder Victor Vasquez didn’t even travel to the Pacific Northwest, and Toronto still registered a 1-0 road victory that enabled its coach Greg Vanney to deliver the breakout quote of the weekend: “I’d argue that we’re the deepest team in the history of the league.” Jozy Altidore scored on a penalty and Michael Bradley is quietly having his best MLS season.

Roster depth won the week for Toronto FC and it will factor into the Red Bulls’ place in the East sooner rather than later. Midfielder Tyler Adams is soon off to South Korea to represent the United States in the Under 20 World Cup. Sean Davis will surely see extended minutes in his absence, but the spotlight will be at the attacking end of the field. Discounting own goals, only four Red Bulls’ players have been credited with scoring goals in the team’s first 11 games. At the opposite end of the MLS balance spectrum are the Portland Timbers. When Sebastian Blanco scored in a draw against undefeated FC Dallas April 29, he became the tenth player on Caleb Porter’s squad to produce a goal this season. It was the Timbers’ ninth game.

Get an all-access look at how Jesse Marsch conducts mini-games in Red Bulls practices at their training facility in Hanover, NJ.

Gonzalo Veron (Designated Player in status, not salary) must produce well beyond the four goals in 38 career games that represent his personal ledger to date. Mike Grella’s return from injury will help, and New York is surely more dangerous with him on the field. The next time we discuss Norwegian import Fredrik Gulbrandsen, we need to be dissecting his first MLS goal and not his quality 18-minute substitution stint.

Surely this team will add a player midseason. There is no panic, and the team is run in ultra-professional fashion by Marsch, Sporting Director Denis Hamlett, and a technical staff that is first rate. I don’t believe the proverbial “window to win a championship” is closing. They’ve built something that lends itself to contending long term. But don’t tell that to 32-year-old Wright-Phillips, 31-year-old Sacha Kljestan, or 71-game winner Robles. Their time is now. If this season is more than just another step in the long-term process of being a model franchise, the time to make a loyal fan base believe is soon upon us.