The New York Red Bulls have a history of disappointing finishes and failed expectations, but the 2013 Red Bulls are on the verge of a Supporters' Shield, and maybe an MLS Cup.
That is why some Red Bulls fans were probably still not ready to believe the fact their team came into the weekend in control of their Supporters' Shield fate. Surely, the Houston Dynamo were going to knock off the Red Bulls, restore order in the universe, and leave some Red Bulls fans, and rivals, uttering the phrase “That’s So Metro,” which has been used for years to describe the variety of painful ways the club has let down its fans.
There was nothing Metro-like about the way Sunday went for the Red Bulls, and when Tim Cahill scored a beautiful opening goal just seven seconds into their match versus the Dynamo, it was the latest evidence that this Red Bulls team just might be ready to exorcise the demons of past Red Bulls teams.
What is different about this version of the Red Bulls? Start with having two Designated Players leading the team in a positive way, which the team has never had before. Tim Cahill has developed into the ideal Designated Player, delivering on the field, and providing leadership in the locker room while Thierry Henry has continued to provide a dangerous attacking threat.
Secondly, the team’s depth is better than the club has ever had before, the product of an effective offseason that included several quality moves, including the trades that dealt away Kenny Cooper’s high salary and landed Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola.
But perhaps most importantly has been the work of the Red Bulls coaching staff, with head coach Mike Petke and assistant coach Robin Fraser working together in expert fashion to meld the new talent with the returning players to create an environment with a significantly more positive atmosphere than the team had prior to this year.
The Red Bulls locker room is a much more closely knit place these days, for a variety of reasons. Former head coach Hans Backe didn’t do much to cultivate a healthy locker room environment, one that included an unreliable and enigmatic Rafa Marquez and, at the time, an unhappy Henry.
This year, Cahill has really taken on a leadership role, and Petke and Fraser have done well to make sure the team’s players know where they stand, a common complaint among players during the previous coaching regime.
It hasn’t always been easy for Petke and the Red Bulls in 2013. The first-year coach had to deal with unloading the underachieving and unhappy Juninho, then had to cope with the season-ending injury to former U.S. national team defender Heath Pearce. Then Petke had to cope with a well-publicized dust-up with Henry, which culminated in Henry being benched temporarily. The team’s response to that incident was telling, with the Red Bulls going 5-0-2 since Henry’s benching.
The Red Bulls are hitting their stride, and playing complete soccer with a deep team that looks very capable of delivering the team’s first title. All of which has at least a few Red Bulls fans nervous about just when the clock will strike midnight on what is shaping up to be a dream season.
There is still work to be done, starting with Sunday’s important regular season finale against the Chicago Fire. That would secure a Supporters' Shield for the club, but even that wouldn’t guarantee MLS Cup success. It should be noted that just three seasons ago, in Backe’s first campaign with the club, the Red Bulls finished first in the East only to fall in the first round of the playoffs.
No, this isn’t the first time in club history that the team has had the look of a potential champion. The 2000 team was probably the best in club history, but fell short in the Eastern Conference final, while the 2008 team reached the MLS Cup final in surprising fashion only to be blown out in the final by the Columbus Crew. Then there was the 2011 team, which finished first in the East only to lose in the first round of the playoffs.
After years of flops, it is that kind of ending that Red Bulls fans have grown accustomed to at the end of seasons, but 2013 just feels a bit different. This Sunday will let us know just how different, because a win would mean the first major piece of silverware in the club’s history, and it could be the first of two additions to a trophy case with plenty of room, for a club with a painful history that stands on the verge of being re-written.
WEST PLAYOFFS ARE SET, BUT RACE TO MLS CUP WIDE OPEN
The San Jose Earthquakes aren’t technically eliminated yet from the MLS playoffs, but the extreme unlikelihood of them realizing the long-shot scenario that gets them into the playoffs (winning, having Colorado lose, and out-scoring the Rapids by 12 goals) means the 2012 Supporters' Shield winners will be heading home early this season.
The LA Galaxy’s scoreless draw with San Jose essentially sets up the same five-team group we have expected to come out of the Western Conference for the past month. The only question now is just what order that quintet will wind up in when the dust finally settles.
Portland, Real Salt Lake, the Galaxy, Seattle and Colorado have survived the brutal race to the West playoffs, and that group is separated by just three points. All five teams could still finish atop the West, while all five teams could also find a way to wind up in the one-game play-in game between the No. 4 seed and No. 5 seed.
The Timbers are in the best position, currently leading the West with one game remaining against last-place Chivas USA. A win on Saturday means the top seed in the West playoffs, and could mean a Supporters' Shield title if both New York and Sporting Kansas City fail to win their regular-season finales. That may seem like a long-shot, but both the Red Bulls and Sporting KC will be facing opponents that must win to have any realistic chance of reaching the playoffs.
The key for all five teams will be trying to secure a top-three seed in order to avoid not only the play-in game, but also having to face the top seed. Whichever team finishes fifth in the West will have to win a road game to reach the West semifinals, then face a rested No. 1 seed. For a struggling team like Seattle, that task could doom the Sounders to an early exit, while a young and deep team like Colorado looks better equipped to handle such a path.
So who is the favorite in the West heading into the playoffs? Choosing between the Timbers, Real Salt Lake and Galaxy is difficult, but that threesome seems most likely to yield an MLS Cup finalist. The Timbers are looking tough at the end of the season, while RSL clearly has the team to return to the final, but with Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez returning to health, the Galaxy still have to be considered the favorites to repeat as MLS Cup champions for a third straight year.
It won’t be easy though. It isn’t a stretch to call this year’s Western Conference playoff field the toughest in league history.
COACHING CAROUSEL LOOMS THIS OFFSEASON
Schellas Hyndman’s announcement last week that he would be stepping down as FC Dallas coach after the season is just one of what should be several coaching changes in MLS this off-season.
In fact, it could be the busiest off-season for coaching changes in years, with as many as eight different teams fielding new coaches to start 2014 than will finish 2013.
Which jobs are up for grabs? FC Dallas is available now, as is the Columbus Crew job, for which reports have included Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Brad Friedel among the candidates. The San Jose Earthquakes job is still technically up for grabs, though interim head coach Mark Watson has done an admirable job replacing Frank Yallop.
What other four jobs could see changes? One that you might expect, and two that might seem less obvious. The Vancouver Whitecaps are a safe bet not to bring back Martin Rennie, who saw his team miss the playoffs a year after a late-season collapse nearly cost them the postseason in 2012.
And the four surprising options? Seattle, Real Salt Lake and Houston could see long-time coaches move on depending on how certain things go, while Colorado could be on the lookout for a coach if Oscar Pareja decides to return to a familiar home. Sigi Schmid could definitely be forced out by the Sounders if Seattle doesn’t reach the Western Conference final, while sources tell Goal that the Earthquakes are considering a move for current Houston Dynamo coach Dom Kinnear, a long-time resident of the San Jose area and former Earthquakes head coach.
Kinnear’s strong ties to the San Jose area, coupled with the Earthquakes wanting to make a splash ahead of opening their new stadium, could lead to Kinnear bidding farewell to Houston after a very successful eight years with the Dynamo. The Earthquakes are led by general manager John Doyle, Kinnear’s best friend, who served as Kinnear’s assistant when Kinnear coached the previous version of the Earthquakes before that group was moved to Houston and became the Dynamo.
Jason Kreis could be on the move to New York City FC, which would free up a pretty attractive position with Real Salt Lake. Former RSL assistant and current New York Red Bulls assistant Robin Fraser would have to be considered a leading candidate to replace Kreis.
Back to Colorado, where Pareja is putting the finishing touches on an outstanding season in charge of the Rapids. Why would he leave? Hyndman’s decision to step down clears the way in Dallas for Pareja, who was a longtime player there and was a key figure in the development of the club’s highly regarded youth academy.
So how might the MLS coaching version of Musical Chairs go this offseason? Here is one potential scenario: Real Salt Lake- Robin Fraser; Columbus Crew- Guillermo Barros Schelotto, FC Dallas- Oscar Pareja; Colorado Rapids- Dennis Hamlett; San Jose Earthquakes- Dom Kinnear; Houston Dynamo- John Spencer; Vancouver Whitecaps- Frank Yallop; New York City FC- Jason Kreis.