Schwartz: The Best Team In Town Plays On A Pitch

No the best pro sports team in town doesn’t pitch the ball…they kick the ball on the pitch, the proper term for a soccer field. Here’s a fact about the NY/NJ sports scene. There is a team in town that is having one of the best seasons in franchise history and has a chance to win a championship.

But chances are you may not know that I’m talking about the New York Red Bulls soccer club who have their sights set on delivering a championship for the first time in franchise history. The reality is that most of the local sports fans aren’t paying attention…but they should.

The Yankees may be through to the ALDS against the Red Sox after their wild card win over the A’s, but if you’ve paid attention to social media over the last few weeks, fans and media have created this gloom and doom picture of the NY/NJ area sports landscape. The Mets didn’t make the playoffs, the Jets and Giants are off to bad starts, and with the exception of maybe the Devils, there aren’t any high expectations for the local NHL and NBA teams.

But the reality is that the Red Bulls, who have enjoyed tremendous regular season success over the last few years, are one of the favorites to win MLS Cup, the trophy given to the champions of Major League Soccer.

So what about this gloom and doom in local pro sports?

Luis Robles #31 of New York Red Bulls during a regular season game against the Chicago Fire at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ on Saturday April 21, 2018.
(Ben Solomon/New York Red Bulls)

“It comes with the territory,” said Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles during a phone conversation with New York Sports Day. “I think in order to be a soccer player in the current time in Major League Soccer, you have to take everything with a grain of salt, especially in this market. We have to be realistic. The Giants are the Giants. The Yankees are the Yankees. These other teams are these other teams and we are where we’re at right now.”

Where the Red Bulls are right now is just one point behind Atlanta United FC for first place in the Eastern Conference and for first place overall for the Supporters Shield, the trophy given to the best regular team in Major League Soccer. If the Red Bulls can finish first overall, it could potentially bring the MLS Cup championship game to Red Bull Arena on December 8th.

Atlanta has received a lot of attention from the national soccer media as a result of their play on the field this year and that was no different heading into this past Sunday’s showdown with the Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena. Atlanta held a four point lead over the Red Bulls so this was a critical match. If the Red Bulls lost or tied, the race for the shield would essentially be over.

But the Red Bulls won 2-0 without their best player Bradley Wright-Phillips who was serving a yellow card accumulation suspension. The Red Bulls heard and read all the fuss about Atlanta and they weren’t happy about it…so they took care of business on the field to cut Atlanta’s lead down to one point.

“Sunday was a big game for us,” said Robles. “You read some of the stories that were out there about the game and it just seemed like everything was about Atlanta and we took exception to that. We’re definitely not the sort of team that puts up bulletin board material or holds grudges but there’s just a lot of belief in what we’re able to do. So when you read something like that some joking in the locker room of how it’s Atlanta’s game…it’s Atlanta’s shield…it’s Atlanta’s everything.”

But with three games to go in the regular season, the Red Bulls are 19-7-5 with 62 points heading into Saturday night’s game in San Jose. They probably need to run the table to have a chance to win the Supporters Shield, but more importantly they need to maintain their elite level of play heading into the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Even if the Red Bulls don’t catch Atlanta, they’re still guaranteed of a first round bye into the Eastern Conference Semifinals where they could potential have a New York Derby showdown with NYCFC who has clinched a playoff spot but will have to play a first round knockout match. Anyway you slice it, the Red Bulls are gearing up for a run at the cup.

“We’ve put ourselves in a great position to continue to challenge but (Atlanta is) still in the drivers seat,” said Robles. “Realistically, we know that we have to get nine out of nine points that are left. If we want to win the shield and if we want to have the sort of momentum that’s necessary going into the playoffs, we need to win (Saturday’s) game and keep winning.”

This season, the Red Bulls have been dominant against Western Division teams with a record of 9-1-1 and a plus 15 goal differential, but they’re in no position to take their foot off the pedal against an Earthquakes team that is having a brutal season at 4-19-8 and simply playing out the string. The Red Bulls know what’s at stake and they are also aware that historically they have not fared well against San Jose.

The Earthquakes lead the all-time series against the Red Bulls/MetroStars 17-12-9 and the Red Bulls franchise is just 2-13-3 all-time in the Bay Area.

The plan is to be prepared to play a critical and tough match.

“These are the types of games that tripped us up in the past,” said Robles. “I know that the guys are locked in and it’s the sort of momentum that comes with winning a game like this past weekend. They’re going to want to spoil our season. They’re going to want to salvage what’s left of their season. They’re going to be feisty and from our perspective the moment we let down and become complacent we’re going to lose points.”

With Robles and his 12 shutouts and 80 saves between the pipes and Wright-Phillips prolific in putting the ball in the back of the net with 19 goals this season, the Red Bulls are in the midst of arguably their best regular season ever. Sure there were two seasons when the Red Bulls won the shield and another when they reached MLS Cup, but those seasons didn’t end with lifting the ultimate hardware.

This year’s team is loaded.

With Wright-Phillips out this past Sunday, Daniel Royer picked up the slack like he always does with his 11th goal of the season. He has been a godsend to the Red Bulls.

“Absolutely,” said Royer. “I can’t speak enough about what Danny brings to the team. He’s a team first guy. At times, he’s had to make adjustments so that the team can be successful and yet we really count on him to be a different maker.”

The midfield is make of players like Alex Muyl, Sean Davis and up and coming American star Tyler Adams. The backline, historically a weakness for the Red Bulls, has been terrific this year thanks to the efforts of a group that includes Aaron Long, Kemar Lawrence, and Tim Parker, a Long Island native that was acquired before the season.

This unit has made Robles a happy camper this year.

“Without a doubt it’s the best backline I’ve had in my time here with the New York Red Bulls and quite possibly the best backline in the history of the organization,” said Robles. “For me, I have a group of guys that are hungry and are willing to get better. They’re young…they’re athletic and talented. That’s a laundry list of what you want in a backline.”

Another sign of how good this team is that the Red Bulls are having this kind of season after having to make a coaching change. Jesse Marsch left the team on July 6th to pursue other opportunities so the Red Bulls elevated assistant Chris Armas to the head coaching role.

There had been whispers that Marsch was leaving, but the players just went about their business and they didn’t miss a beat when the change was made. Armas is not a mirror image of Marsch, but the players certainly have responded positively to the change.

“Chris communicates differently but the philosophy hasn’t changed,” said Robles. “It wasn’t a surprise. There’s sort of been noise resonating in the background. It was always loud enough that you had to be attention to it but at the end of the day because of the way that Jesse handled the situation he didn’t pay attention to it. With Jesse leaving, (Armas) wasn’t going to make any changes…it was just business as usual.”

And now business is about to pick up.

With three games left, the Red Bulls have their sights set on finishing the regular season strong, trying to catch Atlanta and win the Supporters Shield, and most importantly doing something that no other team. In franchise history has been able to do.

Win MLS Cup.

“We’ve been successful for a while now,” said Robles. “The thing that’s missing of course is the (MLS) Cup. We do have a loyal fan base and they want this thing just as bad as we do. All the work that we put in from the moment that we started pre-season in January to where we’re at now has allowed us to be in this position so that we can make a run.”

The mainstream media will no doubt be focusing much if not all of their efforts on the Yankees’ postseason run as well as the Jets and Giants and the basketball and hockey teams. But given what we’ve seen from the Red Bulls so far this season and what they have an opportunity to accomplish, it would be a shame if their efforts aren’t acknowledged and appreciated.

We know the supporters in the South Ward and the other loyal fans that trek to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey are getting amped up and keeping their fingers crossed that this is the year. Now if only the Red Bulls can capture the imagination of an area that hasn’t seen a first division soccer championship since the Cosmos in 1982.

It very well could happen.

About the Author

Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is a contributor covering the Islanders for NY Sports Day while also writing about general sports in the New York/New Jersey area. In addition to his column, Peter also hosts his “Schwartz On Sports” podcast as he interviews players, coaches, and other sports personalities. He is also currently a sports anchor for WFAN Radio, CBS Sports Radio, and WCBS 880 radio while also serving as the public address announcer for the New York Cosmos soccer club.

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