Caden Clark was one of the promising young players on the Red Bulls. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
Major League Soccer celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020.
The Red Bulls walked away disappointed for their 25th consecutive season in not winning a major postseason trophy
With hopes of going far in the MLS Cup Playoffs, the Red Bull fell short – again.
The MLS club hasn’t missed the postseason in 11 years, not since the utterly forgettable 2009 season. While that streak is impressive and three Supporters Shields over six seasons is nothing to sneeze about, nothing beats winning a championship.
It just seems the forever slogan of the Red Bulls is wait ’til next year.
With management deciding to go with a younger squad this season after the club’s all-time leading goal-scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips and team captain Luis Robles were jettisoned after the 2019 season, the learning curve was probably going to be great.
It also was a year of change.
On Feb. 3, Kevin Thelwell became the team’s head of sport, taking over as the main decision maker from sporting director Denis Hamlett, who was kept on in that position.
On Sept. 4, Chris Armas was sacked as coach head.
The season started optimistically as the Red Bulls gained four points in their opening two matches, a 3-2 home win vs. FC Cincinnati and a 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and there was no soccer for four months until the MLS is Back tournament. The Red Bulls edged Atlanta United FC in their opener, 1-0, before things started to go south. They dropped their final two group stage games and were eliminated from the tournament.
Their return to regular season action again began on an optimistic note, a 1-0 victory over New York City FC in the Hudson River Derby before the team endured a three-game winless streak (0-2-1). That prompted Thelwell to fire Armas.
“In this business, we have to make difficult decisions based on performances and, fundamentally, results. At this time, it’s my decision that we must go in a different direction in order to meet the ambitions we have for our football club.
Assistant coach Bradley Carnell directed the team for the rest of the regular season as interim boss. Gerard Struber was named permanent coach Oct. 6 but the Austrian native had to wait awhile to join the club due to a work visa process. According to the Yorkshire Post, the Red Bulls paid $2.36 million to purchase Struber’s rights from Barnsley in the English Championship.
New York scored all of 29 goals in 23 matches this past season, good for 16th among 26 teams. Brian White (five goals) led the team in goal-scoring as Daniel Royer added four. Kaku assisted on a best-best five goals.
There were some encouraging signs:
* Seventeen-year-old Caden Clark made a memorable MLS debut, scoring in a 1-0 win over Atlanta United Aug. 10. Four days later he subbed on in the 59th minute and tallied the team’s lone goal in a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC. Clark finished with two goals in three starts over seven appearances over 280 minutes, adding a playoff goal.
* Ryan Meara, for many years the backup to Robles, was handed the No. 1 goalkeeping job during the summer and he acquitted himself quite well.
* Kyle Duncan proved to be a bright spot at right back and he was awarded for his consistent play with a U.S. national team call-up and his first international cap in a friendly win over El Salvador.
The Red Bulls finished their COVID-10-abbreviated season in sixth place with a 9-9-5 mark, good enough to book a postseason spot. But they had to play at Columbus Crew SC in an Eastern Conference first-round playoff encounter and were eliminated via a 3-2 defeat on Nov. 21.
As it turned out, that was Struber’s first game in charge as the Red Bulls.
While the team calls itself New York, it has not signed a high-profile player that might excite fans since Thierry Henry retired following the 2014 season.
In a July video press briefing with the media, Thelwell said the team was not in a rebuilding mode.
“First and foremost, my perspective on how the big clubs operate and New York Red Bull is a big club, is that enough is never enough,” he said. “There is always consistent pressure on some of those big teams because the fans expect it and the clubs expect it and so on. That said, I don’t think for one moment that we’re in a rebuild at all.”
In his season-ending press conference with the media in November, Thelwell was optimistic about 2021, although it did sound like the team was going to rebuild. Whether it was a little or a lot, it remains to be seen.
“It’s about building a better team with better players,” he said. “Going forward is to really work hard to improve some of the areas that we think we need to, we’re maybe a little bit weak, provide a bit more support to some of those stronger players that are in the group, and then hopefully become a bit more cohesive and a bit more consistent and have a much stronger identity than what we’ve had before.”
Tomorrow: Local story No. 3