WASHINGTON — This has been a year of rebirth for the New York Red Bulls. Under the guidance of a new general manager, Ali Curtis, and new head coach, Jesse Marsch, the hard-luck club has shed old labels. This is a squad with balance, both on the field and in the owner’s checkbook, not one beholden to one or two big names.
It’s a team that prizes consistency in approach and style of play. And it’s a team that has achieved several noteworthy milestones: most regular-season points in club history, most wins overall and at home, the Supporters' Shield and on Sunday, its first playoff triumph at RFK Stadium. Thanks to a composed, organized defensive effort and captain Dax McCarty’s second-half header, New York will take a 1-0 aggregate lead into next weekend’s Eastern Conference semifinal decider at Red Bull Arena.
D.C.’s Raul Diaz Arce knocked New York out of the 1996 MLS Cup quarterfinals with an 89th-minute goal. Christian Gomez did the damage with an 86th-minute strike 10 years later and in 2012, an own goal and failure to capitalize on a 19-minute man advantage led to a 1-1 draw at RFK that set the Red Bulls up for elimination five days later.
Overall, New York was 0-4-2 in postseason games at RFK ... until Sunday.
The milestones say plenty about this Red Bulls team. The way it handles them may say even more. Part of the reason for its success, in 2015 and on Sunday afternoon, has been what McCarty described as a sort of equilibrium. As the Red Bulls rise, they stay increasingly grounded. There was next to no celebration in the visitors’ locker room at RFK, despite the accomplishment and New York’s enviable position heading into the second leg.
In fact, both captain and coach said it felt like only halftime of a game between equals.
“Our kind of mantra this whole season has just been to move on to the next game,” McCarty said. “Don’t pat yourself on the back too much. We don’t get too low or too negative when we go through rough patches. We lost four games in a row [in late May and early June] and we never got too down on ourselves. Even when we won the Supporters' Shield, we just celebrated one night and we said, ‘Look, that’s in the past and now we have bigger goals and bigger dreams.’”
McCarty has been with the Red Bulls since the summer of 2011 (he was acquired in a trade with D.C. for Dwayne De Rosario and is New York's second longest-tenured player) and remembers the ups and downs.
“I would say Red Bull has kind of been synonymous with inconsistency and kind of being great one moment and terrible the next moment,” he said. “This has been a good year for us in terms of keeping an even keel. The coaches do a great job of making sure we don’t feel too good about ourselves after a couple good performances and feel to bad about ourselves if we don’t play well.”
Marsch struck that balance on Sunday. His team rarely was troubled—United became the first home team in MLS playoff history to fail to notch a single shot on goal—but was disappointed it was unable to create a goal from open play or add to its lead. In the end, New York handled a feisty game against a tired, shorthanded opponent (suspended defender Bobby Boswell and injured midfielder Chris Pontius missed out) well enough to win, but not in a manner that’s going to leave anyone overconfident next Sunday.
“For me, it’s more about just our team’s ability to come into a tough place to play and now, find a way to get an edge in the game,” Marsch said. “We did that well. We knew it was going to be physical. We knew they were going to make it hard for us. They did, in all moments. But we held up in the game. We met their physical standard and at times we tired to get the ball down there and put the game on our terms and see if we can create some chances.”
New York could have been punished more severely for Ronald Zubar’s hard, lunging tackle on D.C.’s Markus Halsti in the 68th, but referee Fotis Bazakos showed only a yellow card. It was the closest the Red Bulls came to veering off course. They defended smartly, limiting United to a paltry 55% pass completion rate, and committed only 11 fouls to D.C’s 24. Winning in the playoffs is about maintaining equilibrium during games that get ugly, and the Red Bulls passed that test on Sunday.
“This is what we told the team, that often you can go 90 minutes in the playoffs, especially on the road, and the game may never settle down,” Marsch said. "But it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to be up for those kinds of challenges, understand how to handle them and be ready so when the game does settle down, we find a way to be us and now gain more of an advantage and put things on our terms.”
In 2010, New York took a one-goal league into the second leg of the quarterfinals at Red Bull Arena and was blasted, 3-1, by the San Jose Earthquakes. Two years later, United won, 1-0, and knocked host New York out in the snow that fell in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In 2013, the Red Bulls won the Shield but were ousted at their first hurdle by the Houston Dynamo, who went into Harrison and won, 2-1, in overtime. Last year, a 2-1 home loss to the New England Revolution set New York up for elimination in the Eastern finals.
Next Sunday’s decider against D.C. presents another milestone opportunity. New York has never clinched a multi-game playoff series at home. The feel around this team is different than in years past and, with two easy wins over visiting D.C. already in the 2015 record book, there’s every reason to believe that the Red Bulls are poised for a return to the Eastern finals.
“I think at home, we’re able to establish ourselves with the way we want to play, the rhythm we want to play, the speed,” Marsch said. “Most of the games at home have been heavily on our terms. Now, we can’t that for granted. I know Benny [Olsen]. I know him as a coach and as a leader and he’s going to have his team, in every way, ready for the challenge of going up there and getting a result.”
If it’s a fast, wide open game, it will play into New York’s hands. If it’s a rough and tumble grind, the Red Bulls proved Sunday they can play that way too. This is a team ready and able to handle the playoff roller coaster.
“I’d call it a professional performance,” McCarty said of Sunday’s win. “A playoff performance. Some people probably call it ugly, helter-skelter, whatever you want to call it. This is playoff soccer. It’s going to be a lot of fouls, very chippy … We’re not going to sit here and pat ourselves on the back too much. We realize D.C. is a very good team. They’ve been down and out in games all year and they end up coming back. We look at it as only halftime. They’re going to come out at Red Bull Arena and give us one of the toughest games we’ve ever had at Red Bull Arena.”
This time, there’s a sense the Red Bulls will be ready.