Gerhard Struber: “I think it’s a special situation of for me and also for my team. … It’s a big challenge.” ( Photo)

By Michael Lewis Editor

It’s one hell of a way to make your coaching debut in any sport, let alone soccer.

When Gerhard Struber walks onto the MAPFRE Stadium field for the Red Bulls’ first-round MLS Cup Playoff game against Columbus Crew SC in Columbus, Ohio Saturday he will be making decisions on the sidelines for the first time.

After waiting for his visa, after going through quarantine and after guiding the team via social distance in training the past week, Struber’s first test will be a single-elimination game.

Win and the Red Bulls move on. Lose and its wait ‘til next year before the Austrian-native can coach his next game in Major League Soccer.

“I think it’s a special situation of for me and also for my team,” Struber said during a video call with the media Thursday afternoon.

“It’s a big challenge,” he later said.

The Red Bulls hired the 43-year-old Struber Oct. 6, paying Barnsley a reported $2.36 million for his rights. He replaced interim head coach Bradley Carnell, who had been running the show since Chris Armas was fired Sept. 4.

“We obviously would have wanted Gerhard to come in earlier, but I’m delighted that he’s in any stage of the season,” Red Bulls sporting director Kevin Thelwell added.

While he has researched the league in general and Columbus in particular, Struber is far from an expert on the league and even his own team. He will take full responsibility as interim head coach Bradley Carnell has returned to his post as assistant coach.

Struber, who also doesn’t know the players personally, is more concerned about tactics than anything else for the match.

“At the moment, my big focus and concentration is only in tactical things for Saturday,” he said. “This is my big duty at the moment and my big focus and big energy only in this way. From the personnel side it’s no time. I think it’s more only the job to bring the right players on the pitch on Saturday with the right tactical plan and the right energy.”

In a perfect world, Struber would fit bring some personal style to the team, but he certainly doesn’t have the time for it.

“It’s not so easy, in in the last couple of days and it’s not so easy to change everything at the moment,” he said. “The boys showed me in the last week we are in a good way and now we adapt the small things on Saturday … The boys that we have, we can have success.”

Struber participating in training via a social distance while wearing a mask.

“When we have the chance to come together on the training pitch,” he said. “I can feel a big attention, I can feel a very good mood. They also listen with a good attention.”

After watching the players practice, Struber already had a Starting XI in place.

“I have a good impression right now,” he said. “I have a good feeling. I think in this game we need not only the first 11, we need every single player in this squad. We need a very good energy against the big team.”

The Starting XI likely will be without midfielders Christian Casseres, Jr. and Kaku, who returned from World Cup qualifying duty with Venezuela and Paraguay, respectively, on Wednesday night. They probably will begin the game on the bench, if they traveled to Ohio.

“Of course, I think they’re very important players for us,” said Struber, adding that both players enjoyed success in their South American qualifiers.

Without going into detail, Struber praised the third-place Crew (12-6-5, 41), which finished nine points ahead of the sixth-place Red Bulls (9-9-5, 32) in the Eastern Conference.

He called Columbus “a massive opponent.”

“It’s a big challenge on Saturday,” he added. “We need every single player on his personal limit. Then we can make the next step. Everyone knows it’s a knockout game we have to bring a performance maybe out of our personal comfort zone that we can make the next step.”

Struber was hopeful the Red Bulls could stage an upset.

“We have a chance to bring, maybe a surprise,” he said. “We have a big ambition also just now and also in the long term.”

He can make the short term a bit longer with a win Saturday.