Commentary – On Wednesday night, the New York Red Bulls will compete for the right to call themselves champions. When they take the pitch in Kansas City, they’ll be playing for the oldest trophy on the continent – the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. For them, it will be for more than just a mere cup. While that’s the ultimate prize in this particular competition, there is more at stake than that.
The Red Bulls must win this competition to dismiss the stench that over two decades of tournament futility has left behind.
This is not the club’s first appearance in a tournament final. There was the run to the U.S. Open Cup in 2003, and the Juan Pablo Angel fueled run to MLS Cup in 2008. Both of those matches ended in defeat. Think about 2015 – the Red Bulls won their second Supporter’s Shield in three years. There was an air of something special on the horizon. The group of players believed and the supporters followed right along with them. Instead of bringing home an MLS Cup, they were felled in the Conference Finals for the second year in a row – with Shaun Wright-Phillips nearly playing the hero with an extra time shot off the post. If that ball had found the goal, it would have sent those Red Bulls into extra time.
There are a million moments just like that in Red Bull/Metro history. Wasn’t the 2013 Supporters Shield supposed to dismiss the Curse of Caricola?
This isn’t about some preternatural hex. Wednesday’s match is going to take 18 men to remain focused for an entire match, whether that match lasts 90+ or 120+. There is no margin for error. There is only the goal. That goal MUST be reached to begin to salvage a season that has been a bit of a disappointment.
Head Coach Jesse Marsch made a statement in the scoreless draw against the Philadelphia Union last Sunday. He chose to rest six starters, instead rolling out a very young and untested roster. Considering Marsch’s club is far from a lock for the playoffs, the move raised an eyebrow. “Given everything, we want to win the trophy, right, and you don’t have a lot of opportunities to play a final; clearly around this club, very few,” Marsch stated.
Clearly the players are also invested in the idea of winning this particular competition. “I’m glad that we’ve taken this tournament seriously in the past few years, and we’ve gathered experience from that,” Captain Sacha Klejstan said. “I joined this club and said ‘yeah, I understand the fans that have been here since the beginning and they’ve never lifted a trophy.’ But, now that I’ve been here for two and a half years and I’ve gotten to know some of these fans and I’ve gotten to know the people that work for this club, that have gone this long without winning the U.S. Open Cup or the MLS Cup, I fully understand it. It would mean a lot to us.”
Let’s be clear. If this club wins the U.S. Open Cup and misses the playoffs it will put some tarnish on what should be a celebratory season if the former happens. To put the stamp of success on this season, the Red Bulls must do both. For a club that desperately needs press of any kind – good or bad – success means more than just lifting a cup. Success means extending an olive branch to a group of supporters that have been repeatedly kicked in the teeth for over 20 years.
In recent years, it has become apparent that the Austrian overlords that control the checkbook may have decided to focus their monetary might in the two Red Bull clubs closer to their home. With that, it seems New York, who can talk about the histoy of the club all they want, may end up living in the shadow of their noisy blue neighbors – New York City FC. Those same blue neighbors that took 2 out of 3 from the Red Bulls and sit 2nd in the Eastern Conference have taken the lessons learned in their first two seasons and have made something of themselves. They’ve spent money to do it. The Red Bulls have committed to building from within, and while that may be better in the long term, there are players on this club that are not getting any younger. For that core, the time is now.
“I think we have to be all-in now. Tomorrow morning, get a little re-gen session in and Tuesday, get over to KC and get ourselves ready,” said Klejstan. “We talked about it earlier in the week, but playing against KC, a good, experienced team that has won the Open Cup and has won the MLS Cup in the last three or four years. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us, but I think we’re going to be all up for it and we’re all pretty excited about the opportunity to play for a title.”
Everyone sees the upcoming schedule. The road to a playoff berth doesn’t get any easier. It will be an uphill dog fight right to the last match of the season. While the hope of raising the Cup is there, one has to ask – Will Sunday’s dropped points be worth it in the end?
Right now, that answer lies with the 18 men and a head coach headed to their date with destiny Wednesday night. Can they change the narrative? Goalkeeper Luis Robles, on the bench for the USOC Final, provided some perspective.
“When the group of us showed up here in 2012 and even a little bit before that, this organization hadn’t won anything and if anything at times, constantly got mocked because they’re one of the original clubs and they’re the ones that spend so much money and yet they’re not able to have anything to show for it,” Robles stated. “So it’s a point of pride for us not only to win that first piece of silverware, but to continue to add silverware to the closet, and Wednesday is an opportunity for us to add something that we haven’t added before. It allows us to continue to take a step forward as an organization. Because it’s one thing to say yes, we want to be one of the best organizations in the league and you can do that with facilities, you can do that with leadership, you can do that with the money that you spend on the roster.”
Robles continued. “But ultimately, it’s always going to come down to silverware and what you’re winning. And for the longest time, this organization didn’t have that and yet that’s slowly changed. I think that change came across with a few different things. A change in the leadership, the top Marc De Grandpre did a great job of focusing this organization and trying to be one of the top organizations. And of course just the players. There’s a lot of pride in this locker room and what we’re able to do and what we’re able to accomplish as a group. On Wednesday it’s another opportunity for us to not only show the league, but ourselves that everything we preach and everything that we’re working for each and every day can come to fruition.”