It’s been a long time since soccer fans in the New York/New Jersey area have had the chance to celebrate a professional first division championship and that was back in 1982 when the Cosmos beat the Seattle Sounders 1-0 in San Diego to win their fifth Soccer Bowl. After the NASL folded in 1984, there would not be a first division league in North America until Major League Soccer kicked off in 1996.
The NY/NJ MetroStars were hoping to pick up where the Cosmos left off, but 23 years later, including a name change to the New York Red Bulls, there is still that championship void for the organization and it’s long suffering fans. The MetroStars/Red Bulls have fielded some pretty good teams over the years including one trip to MLS Cup in 2008 that resulted in a 3-1 loss to Columbus. There have been three Supporters Shields (including this season) for best regular season record but the ultimate goal of hoisting the cup has not yet come to fruition.
In the words of the late Tom Petty, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
But this season could be different…..this could be the year that the Red Bulls finally win it all…maybe.
After an MLS record 71 point regular season and an Eastern Conference Semifinal win over Columbus, the Red Bulls will take on Atlanta United FC for the Eastern Conference Championship with leg one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Sunday at 5pm and leg two will take place next Thursday November 29th at Red Bull Arena with kickoff set for 730pm. It’s a matchup of the two best teams in the regular season and the winner of this series will host MLS Cup on Saturday December 8th.
For the Red Bulls, it’s business as usual.
“The approach is what it has been all along,” said Red Bulls Head Coach Chris Armas. “In the last feels like 10 games of the season felt like playoff game, it felt like we couldn’t slip up, and that’s what it feels like now as we have been preparing for a few months now not letting play slip and then the one game at a time mentality. Without getting too ahead of ourselves for Leg 2 we know we have a tough challenge ahead of us to go to Atlanta. It is one game at a time and we are getting ourselves ready.”
This will be the first time that the Red Bulls have faced Atlanta in post-season play but they have enjoyed regular success against the second year franchise. The Red Bulls are 3-0-1 against Atlanta United FC including a season sweep this year. The Red Bulls scored a 3-1 win in Atlanta on May 20th thanks to a pair of goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips and then followed that up with a 2-0 victory at Red Bull Arena on September 30th. Daniel Royer, coming of a two goal performance in leg two of the Eastern Conference Semifinal against Columbus, scored a goal in the victory over Atlanta on the pitch in Harrison and has scored in three out of four games against United over the last two seasons.
Atlanta, who disposed of NYCFC in the other Eastern Conference Semifinal, was atop the table in the Eastern Conference for most of the regular season until the Red Bulls finally caught and passed them on the final day of play. With 70 points and a talented roster, Atlanta presents a stiff challenge for the Red Bulls who have a big hurdle to clear if they are to make it to MLS Cup.
“Atlanta is a very fast, talented team,” said Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles. “They have a lot of quality up and down the line up whether you want to start in the back from their goalkeeper in defense all the way up to the two guys who have been, really, the brightest stars in this league all year. So, we have a lot of respect for not only that team but especially those two guys. A lot of our success is going to be our ability to shut down Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron.”
And it certainly won’t be easy for United to deal with the likes of Wright-Phillips, Royer, U.S. Soccer Male Player of the Year finalist Tyler Adams and MLS defender of the year Aaron Long. The Red Bulls have assembled a roster filled with veteran stars including MLS Best XI left back Kemar Lawrence and young players that have come up through the Red Bulls Academy like midfielder Sean Davis.
Davis is a Red Bulls homegrown player that was born in Long Branch, New Jersey and hails from Holmdel. The 25 year old former star at Duke has been enjoying this ride with his hometown team.
“Yeah, of course this club has done so much for me and I’m really grateful just to be in this position and then when I look at it from my career standpoint, it’s just a really great opportunity,” said Davis. “I just feel like I have a lot of experience under my belt and it is my time to help lead the team in any way possible. I feel a sense of responsibility and I just really happy with what the team has done up to this point.”
After a regular season that resulted in the franchise’s third Supporters Shield in the last six seasons, the Red Bulls remain on a mission to capture that elusive first MLS Cup in franchise history. You could make the argument that the Red Bulls, especially in the post-season, haven’t just been facing an opponent on the field but also the ghosts of the 23 year old history of the club that has been filled with so many disappointments.
This should be quite a series with two terrific teams competing to represent the Eastern Conference in MLS Cup. If the Red Bulls get a favorable result in leg one, the atmosphere at Red Bull Arena for leg two on Thursday will be off the charts. I remember being with my dad at Soccer Bowl ’78 at Giants Stadium when the Cosmos beat the Tampa Bay Rowdies. There was so much joy for soccer fans back then and I can only imagine what it would be like for the current generation of soccer fans in our area to experience the same thing.
There’s still some work for the Red Bulls to do before that happens, but there’s something about this team that makes you think that this year will be different than seasons past. The fans have been waiting a long time….23 years to be exact. Maybe, just maybe, there will be no more “wait till next year”.
Perhaps this year is next year.