The outrage meter reached 11 as long suffering New York Red Bulls fans vented in a volatile, emotional January night. Mike Petke, a local son who wore the crest for years as a player and later became the club’s first truly successful manager, embodied everything the organization needed to be.
And the club had just fired him.
So disgruntled supporters had arrived at a town hall-style meeting ready to beat the cold night with bursts of displeasure, determined to share their disgust and sense of high injustice. Most infuriating was that Ali Curtis, new to the job, someone with no history inside the organization, had made this shocking decision.
It really was something of a watershed moment for a fan base that had historically struggled to muster such levels of critical mass, this meaningful intersection of passion, loyalty and shared vision.
Significant repair work was clearly ahead for the front office and the newly installed sporting director, Curtis. If nothing else, it would certainly be difficult for incoming manager Jesse Marsch to win over Red Bull hearts. He was a villain waiting to happen – even if none of this was his fault. Fans were ready to pounce at the first sign of stumble or bumble inside Red Bull Arena.
Fast-forward to Week 4 of Major League Soccer’s ongoing season – and signs of stumble or bumble have been hard to find. In fact, the Red Bulls have been among the early surprises in MLS, one of three clubs yet to lose.
Marsch’s men have pretty much nailed it so far, a win and a draw on the road and a comprehensive 2-0 home romp over D.C. United. The club’s seven points have come against good clubs, too; Columbus and United have winning records, while Sporting KC is level at .500.
Not bad for a “rebuilding” team, eh? For a club that bid adieu in the offseason to Thierry Henry, a World Cup, European Championship and UEFA Champions League winner and definitely among the most talented attackers ever to wear any MLS jersey. They also lost Tim Cahill, an Aussie international who never quite met expectations. That loss wasn’t exactly a crusher, but it did underscore status as a club in transition.
Well, transition-schmansition. The Red Bulls lead the East and Marsch is looking anything like a reviled figure. It doesn’t mean supporters aren’t still upset with the way Petke was treated. And it doesn’t mean the good times will necessarily last; we are barely out of March, after all, and the MLS season extends into October.
But it’s not just the 2-0-1 start; it’s the way the Red Bulls have pulled ahead of the field. Take the win over D.C. United on March 22. After the match, United manager Ben Olsen lamented his team’s sluggish, sleepy start and wondered how they could wander into a rivalry match without the requisite, spring-loaded intensity.
But his emotional comments seemed to ignore something important: the rampaging Red Bulls. A more balanced perspective may have sounded something like this: the Red Bulls pressed high and hard, and United seemed flummoxed for ideas of how to play out of that pressure.
A week later, the Red Bulls went into Ohio and emerged as 2-1 winners over the Crew. This time the opposition manager, Gregg Berhalter, praised the Red Bulls, allowing that his team knew the pressure was coming and still couldn’t deal with it.
Marsch’s men have clearly bought in. Going forward, the Red Bulls may be the best pressing team in MLS since the Sporting Kansas City side of a couple years ago. That will make contests in Harrison, N.J., a real hoot to watch this year, if nothing else.
But “enjoyable” to watch only gets a team so far. Results ultimately count most. So far, the Red Bulls have what it takes – never mind that Henry isn’t around to orchestrate the attack.
Bradley Wright-Phillips matched an MLS single season scoring record with 27 goals last year. But it looked like a “false” 27, if there is such a thing. So much of the Englishman’s success was credited to Henry, not just to his wily positioning and crafty playmaking (14 assists in 2014), but because of all the defensive attention he drew and deserved.
Well, Wright-Phillips has two goals and two assists this year, which gives him a direct impact on four of five Red Bulls goals. He has been active and seems free of the burden as playing second violin to Henry, now demonstrating an overall capacity to spearhead the attack that went unnoticed previously.
Something similar is happening with right-sided attacker Lloyd Sam, who has been sensational thus far.
Listen to what Marsch told ExtraTime Radio about Sam:
“Loyd has a personality. I didn’t know that from watching him last year. I thought he was just a guy who would wait on the line and get the ball to take guys on. … I think Henry was good for these guys because he plays at such a high level and thinks at such a high level. But I think his personality is so strong that it didn’t allow a lot of guys on the team to blossom in the way they needed to. I think they are all excited now to show that they have so much more to give.”
Aside from Henry’s big personality, he was also demanding and most likely intimidating in some ways. His body language was always full of exasperation and abomination when teammates didn’t do as he wanted – never mind that they aren’t mind readers. It’s easy to see how younger or lesser players – well, pretty much everyone in MLS is a “lesser” next to King Titi – would feel tensely restrained, afraid to make mistakes. Perhaps they didn’t want to feel Henry’s wrath, or maybe they were loath to disappoint him. Either way, it’s difficult to express yourself or be your top self while straining to please the big dog of the pack.
So we have Wright-Phillips and Sam unbridled in 2015, and so far so good. Behind them is Dax McCarty, one of the busiest men in MLS, a midfield harrier who also has above average passing ability, a swell compliment that allows new man Sacha Kljestan further offensive freedom.
The back line is young in spots (center back Matt Miazga is just 19; right back Chris Duvall just 23). But behind them is as steady a presence in goal as found in MLS today. Luis Robles saved the team time and again in 2014, making that defense look better than it was.
Maybe all this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Marsch had things going in good directions at expansion Montreal in 2012. The Impact finished a respectable 7th of 10 teams in the East, with the same number of points (42) as Portland earned in its expansion season one year earlier. But something went sideways between Marsch and upper management around Stade Saputo, philosophical clashes or some-such. The upshot was a parting, one described as “amicable” on either side.
The Impact has had two managers since then and last year won just six matches, half as many as Marsch’s season in charge in Quebec.
Again, the season is long. But Montreal is without a win in league play while the Red Bulls are without a loss.
The Petke assassination still burns for supporters – but that doesn’t mean Marsch and the Red Bulls can’t make some hay in 2015 anyway.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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