Can Marsch Get Red Bulls Back To East Royalty?

You’ve got to love Jesse Marsch.

He doesn’t pick a fight with the supporting cast. He goes after the leading man.

That was United States Men’s National Team captain Michael Bradley in the line of Marsch’s fire Friday at Red Bull Arena. In the second half of New York’s 1-1 draw against Toronto FC, referee Robert Sibiga was granting the Reds’ star midfielder far too much time to tie a shoelace (play was actually halted for this), and that’s when the Red Bulls’ third-year head coach lost it.

“I couldn’t believe the ref stopped for him to tie his shoes. That’s ridiculous. Am I alone in that? Is that ridiculous?,” he asked in his post-match press conference. With Bradley in no particular hurry, Marsch pantomimed a hydration break from his place on the sideline.

“I asked him if he needed water, if there was anything else we could provide Michael so that he was prepared to play. I thought that was ridiculous.” Marsch apparently said all of this to a player he once coached, when Bradley was becoming a rising star for his country. He said this with his former boss on that 2010 U.S. World Cup Team, Bob Bradley, watching from a suite at Red Bull Arena.

Of course, it all fit the script marvelously. Toronto FC has three of Major League Soccer’s biggest stars in Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco. It is a team that probably deserved to win MLS Cup 2016 if not for a wonder save by Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei. It’s a franchise gaining traction in Canada’s largest city that played its most recent home game before a sellout crowd of 27,000. It’s a club that at present, is extremely important to the league’s overall imprint on the North American sports landscape. Additionally, Toronto rosters three players earning in excess of $4.8 million per year (only one New York player earns more than a million).

The Red Bulls? The growing sentiment around the league is that their time has passed. That the window to win a title that opened in the Thierry Henry-Tim Cahill era under Mike Petke, that continued with a Marsch-led squad fueled by Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, is now slamming shut.

Be happy with your two Supporters’ Shields. You are no longer the flavor du jour. And sit tight while the opposition ties its shoe.

That’s the narrative that this coach and his leadership core likely perceives, and was even reinforced to a degree by Marsch himself Friday night.

“Toronto is a good team,” he conceded. “It’s a little bit hard to swallow because we’ve been that kind of team in the East the past couple of years.” At the conclusion of Week 12, the Red Bulls misleadingly occupy the sixth and final playoff berth in the Conference, because their 1.31 points per game is ninth best in the East.

But the most telling take on the game was the simplest in Marsch’s address: “That looked like us, that felt like us.” It was a strong team response from the 3-1 setback at home against the LA Galaxy five nights earlier.

The game’s defining moment Friday came not from a Toronto side that possessed the ball for more than half the game, but from goalkeeper Luis Robles, who denied the opposition a chance to score on a penalty kick for the 8th time in 32 career attempts by the opposition in his MLS career.

That pales in comparison to the MLS all-time king in this category, Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando, who one day later would make his 22nd all-time save in such a situation. But Robles’ 25 percent success rate in attempting to stop a PK is still ahead of the league wide curve. Kljestan called the ensuing minutes of the game after Robles’ diving save on Altidore “the liveliest I’ve heard Red Bull Arena in a while.”

The East is good, too. New York City’s David Villa scores at will, Philadelphia’s reeled off a club-record four-game winning streak, Miguel Almiron has a hat-trick induced swagger about him for Atlanta. Chicago has been reborn with the additions of Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Once the Jason Kreis-led Orlando City figures out how to win on the road, that’s trouble for everyone. And Toronto is the best of the lot.

Yet, we are seven months removed from the Red Bulls finishing the 2016 season as the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. They are coached by the same man who’s found a way to maximize his team’s potential as the weather gets warm. A man who is already just two wins shy of tying Octavio Zambrano and Hans Backe as the franchise’s all-time winningest coach.

One remarkable save and one hilarious missive from the sideline to get a shoelace tied may not seem like much. But let’s see if it’s a start on the road back to being a beast of the East.