By Michael Lewis
In the iconic movie Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks, the main character utters that unforgettable line:
“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
You can say the same thing about the New York/New Jersey teams this Major League Soccer season.
We really don’t know what we’re going to get with the Red Bulls and New York City FC.
Well, if you want to get technical, we do know what we’re going to get – inconsistency.
The crazy thing about this is that both sides not only have winning records, but they are in third and fourth place, respectively, above the line that will allow them to host a game in the MLS Cup Playoffs. The Red Bulls are 13-8-8 with 47 points. Following right behind the Jersey squad is NYCFC at 13-9-6 and 45 points.
On paper, it doesn’t look so bad.
On the pitch, it is a different story, really.
In order of the standings, let’s start with the Red Bulls.
They just might be the most enigmatic team in all of the 28 clubs in the league.
Incredibly, they can’t win consistently at home (4-5-5), but are powerhouses on the road (9-3-3).
Maybe, just maybe, they need a hypnotist to solve this confounding problem.
They can be very, very good and look like a legitimate team that could go deep in the postseason, as they did against CF Montreal on Wednesday night. Despite using a revamped backline due to a pair of suspensions and head coach Gerhard Struber keeping team captain and Aaron Long on the bench, the Red Bulls gutted out a 1-0 victory over the second-place team in the Eastern Conference.
Now, that was no mean feat, considering they hadn’t won in the Canadian city in more than a decade, breaking a 10-match winless streak that went back to May 19, 2012, when Jesse Marsch guided Montreal. That is a long time ago.
Perhaps the best example of the squad going from one extreme end of the spectrum to another came during a stunning four-day Jekyll-Hyde span in late July.
The Red Bulls recorded an inspiring 4-3 triumph at Austin FC, one of the leading Western Conference teams, on July 24.
On July 27, they showed their flip side in a devastating 5-1 defeat at Orlando City SC in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals. They allowed the equalizer in first-half stoppage time before conceding four second-half goals in that debacle.
When they are playing at full throttle, the Red Bulls can be a difficult team to beat, but everything needs to fall in place. They don’t need to fill the net – heck, they don’t have the players to consistently do that – but they need to continue to press the possession and limit their mistakes in the back.
If they do that, they will win, and perhaps earn a few three-point results at home in their remaining three matches at Red Bull Arena.
As for NYCFC, there have been two defining moments this season and both came off the field.
The first moment came when Ronny Deila left the defending MLS Cup champions for a similar position at Standard Liege in Belgium on June 13. Assistant coach Nick Cushing took over as interim head coach.
The Cityzens were atop the Eastern Conference with an 8-3-2 record and 26 points at the time and are a rather mediocre 5-6-4 since then.
A monumental difference.
While Cushing obviously has continued Deila’s tactics, there still is a transition period when a new No. 1 takes over.
It is a huge jump for any assistant coach who takes over a team.
Different personalities, different motivational abilities.
Transitions don’t happen overnight.
Sometimes things jell, sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes NYCFC looks imposing, sometimes they don’t, especially on defense when the Cityzens seem to make the worst mistake at the worst time in recent encounters.
NYCFC lost its best weapon when Taty Castellanos, the 2021 MLS Golden Boot champion, left the team for Girona in Spain’s La Liga. The Argentine scoring machine boasted a league-best 13 goals when he said goodbye to his teammates on July 25. Since then, City has scurried to score eight goals in seven games en route to an abysmal 1-5-1 mark.
(Can Castellanos be declared NYCFC’s MVP this season in what the team has done after his departure?).
Heber, who had 15 goals and four assists in 22 appearances before suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2019, has seven goals this campaign. Since Castellanos left, the Brazilian forward has scored all of one goal – in Wednesday’s loss to D.C. – in 329 minutes over seven games.
Defensively, the team has been a train wreck, allowing the Columbus Crew, Inter Miami CF (both on the road) and Charlotte FC (at home) to tally three goals in each game, which not surprisingly, resulted in losses.
Then came the excruciating 2-1 loss to Orlando City SC at RBA on Wednesday night, as the visitors found the net six minutes into stoppage time.
Yes, the backline has been hurt by injuries, but as we are constantly reminded by coaches and players – defense is played by the entire team.
And there is more to unpack with this team.
Because it still has to play at a baseball park – Yankee Stadium – the schedule must be made when the Yankees are on the road. Concacaf refuses to hold Champions League matches because the stadium doesn’t measure up to the confederation’s requirements.
So, City called an incredible six venues as home this season – Banc of California Stadium, Rentschler Field, Red Bull Arena, Citi Field, Belson Stadium and of course, Yankee Stadium.
Not having a soccer-specific stadium in the works is an original sin of the league and the club. Even if NYC mayor Eric Adams announced the city had found a piece of land for the club today, it would take two or three years before a new stadium could be constructed, considering all of the hoops one must jump through when building anything in the Big Apple.
NYCFC needs to root for the Yankees to endure a miserable October to have a chance to host a match or two at the stadium or be forced to ask its supporters to journey across the George Washington Bridge to watch the team compete at RBA in the postseason.
That will not be a pretty sight.
It doesn’t help any team to be nomads.
There still is time for both teams to turn things around, although time is running out.
The Red Bulls have five games remaining in the regular season, NYCFC six. The Red Bulls host the first-place Philadelphia Union on Saturday, City plays at the New England Revolution on Sunday.
We’ll see if they can right their respective ships to make a decent playoff run.
Can either team achieve that?
Who knows what we will find in their next box of chocolates?