By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 7, 2023) US Soccer Players – When the Seattle Sounders missed the MLS playoffs in 2022, it gave the New York Red Bulls both the longest active playoff streak and a chance to set an MLS record. A look at the Eastern Conference standings ten games into the 2023 season shows the difficulty of maintaining that level of success.
After a 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, the Red Bulls sit at the bottom of the standings in 15th-place with just a single win this season and only seven goals scored. Some of the Red Bulls’ problems can be chalked up to bad luck. Advanced statistical metrics suggest New York is one of the league’s best defensive teams. The number of goals the Red Bulls have scored is just over half of their expected goals total.
Part of the problem is a rash of injuries that have kept crucial players, particularly in the attack, off the field. Lewis Morgan, the club’s leading goalscorer in 2022, hasn’t played since March 11th and midfielder Luquinhas has been out since April 1st. If luck turns their way and those key players get healthy, New York appears good enough to keep the playoff streak going.
While the Red Bulls don’t have an MLS Cup in the trophy case from any of their 13 years of consecutive playoff appearances, they do have three Supporters’ Shields from 2013, 2015, and 2018. MLS moves fast, making it easy to overlook how good New York has been.
The 2018 Red Bulls, first under Jesse Marsch and then Chris Armas, collected a then-record 71 points over 34 games. That team turned on a relentless style of play, the goalscoring exploits of Bradley Wright-Phillips with 20 goals that season, and the contributions of a cadre of present and future US internationals.
In defense, that version of the Red Bulls had a pair of MLS-elite center backs in Aaron Long and Tim Parker stationed in front of goalkeeper Luis Robles. In midfield, the club had an 18-year-old homegrown player in his second year as a starter in Tyler Adams. 20-year-old Kyle Duncan played a smattering of minutes as a young reserve.
All things considered, the club navigated Marsch’s departure fairly well. 2018 proved to be a modern high water mark for New York, but keeping the playoff streak alive in subsequent seasons was an admirable feat. Still, it’s worth wondering if it will ever be that good again.
Long’s departure to LAFC via free agency in January saw the last major link to that 2018 team leave the club. Adams made the jump to Europe four years before, and the club traded Parker following the 2020 season. Robles ended his Red Bulls career in possession of a host of club records after the 2019 campaign when he moved to Inter Miami for that club’s inaugural season. Replacing the core of a team that helped the Red Bulls reach such heights has not been easy.
Last year, New York finished fourth in the East before bowing out of the playoffs in a home loss against FC Cincinnati. Morgan led the team in scoring with 14 goals, but the club has still yet to truly replace Wright-Phillips, a player who left after the 2019 season.
The strength of the club remains in its ability to force turnovers and turn them into attacking opportunities, though that approach is no longer unique in MLS. The Red Bulls have watched other teams use their blueprint to contend for titles.
The coach who took over for Armas when his time as head coach ended, Gerhard Struber, is under pressure not only to keep the streak alive but to push the Red Bulls closer to a championship. A believer in the Red Bull playing philosophy, Struber isn’t without talent in New Jersey. With a few additions and the ability to avoid self-inflicted wounds, New York could do better than simply qualifying for the postseason.
This Red Bulls team has something in common with the 2018 version, a core of talented Americans with international resumes or the talent to build one soon. The lowest bar for the club is making the playoffs for a fourteenth consecutive year, but there’s reason to think that the Red Bulls can do more.
Duncan, a part-time player in 2018, established himself as a top MLS fullback in the years since. Now 25, he is one of the first names on the team sheet when healthy. The defender missed last week’s match against Chicago due to yellow card accumulation and was out against Philadelphia with a knee issue.
Opposite Duncan is 20-year-old academy product John Tolkin. Tolkin’s high-energy game and ability to play provider in the attack makes him one of the top young players in his position anywhere in the world. USMNT head coach Anthony Hudson gave the Red Bulls left back his first international cap against Colombia in a January friendly.
A pair of US youth internationals man midfield spots in Harrison. Frankie Amaya has missed time with an injury recently, including agains the Union, but the former FC Cincinnati draft pick has grown into a defensive midfield role.
Often alongside Amaya in Struber’s lineup is Daniel Edelman, a player who has captained the US U-20 team and is tipped for a bright future in the center of the Red Bulls formation. Edelman is on pace to surpass his minute total from 2022 by midseason, not bad for a player who turned 20 at the end of April.
The analytics suggesting the Red Bulls are better than their record is some solace during a tough beginning to the season. It’s one thing to be a struggling club at the bottom of the conference table. It’s another to know that injuries, bad luck, and some missteps are mostly to blame. It’s also probably worth the reminder that the difference between 10th and 15th-place in the East is three points.
Good numbers anywhere but the points column at the end of the season won’t keep the Red Bulls’ playoff streak alive. Eventually, and preferably soon, the Red Bulls need to turn potential into results.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Atlanta United