By Michael Lewis
This is the time of the year were many Red Bulls supporters have to be giddy.
After all, their favorite MLS team is in first place and optimism reigns supreme.
True, the Red Bulls are tied for first with every other team in the league. Just how many are there now, 28, 29, 35? – I have lost count.
But as we have seen many times, that positive attitude starts to fade as the season wears on, and optimism sometimes turns to sarcasm.
Here we are at the cusp of Major League Soccer’s 28th season and the Red Bulls are still chasing the league’s Holy Grail – an MLS Cup title.
As the Red Bulls put the finishing touches before they take on Orlando City SC at Exploria Stadium on Saturday night, they face many questions.
Among the pressing ones:
* Can the Red Bulls find someone to fill the soccer boots of departed captain and U.S. men’s national team center back Aaron Long, who joined defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles FC as a free agent during the offseason.
* Can Sean Nealis fill Long’s boots as a leader (and yes I have heard many of the jokes about Nealis being ready to leave the team in a season or two, since the Red Bulls seems to allow their captains to leave after a short stint in the role).
* Will Belgian forward Dante Vanzeir be the answer, to become a consistent scoring force? Or will he become the 2023 version of Patryk Klimala, who underachieved so often?
* Can midfielder Lewis Morgan produce another stellar campaign (15 goals) as he did last year?
* Can head coach Gerard Struber continue to have this no-name lineup overachieve?
* Can the team find a way to win consistently at home. The side had an impressive road record in 2022, a team’s actual power base is at its home venue. You win and hopefully, you can attract more fans.
* And can the inside team – ie. Red Bulls’ management – find a way to fill the stadium, a beautiful Red Bull Arena, on a regular basis?
Sometimes I fear the train has left the station on the last question. I hope I am wrong, but the Red Bulls couldn’t fill the place regularly when they boasted the likes of Thierry Henry.
Some questions might begin to be answered on Saturday night, while others may take weeks or months.
Since he took over the coaching reins, I have been impressed with Struber on his tactics and his way of rallying the players. He knows that if he loses the locker room, it will be difficult and perhaps impossible to get his message across and he could join the seemingly endless list of departed Red Bulls/MetroStars coaches since 1996.
Like it or not, the Red Bulls have forged a soccer reputation similar to that of the Cleveland Guardians (formerly the Indiana) have in baseball. They have never won an MLS Cup. Cleveland hasn’t won a World Series since that magic 1948 season, which probably is well before many of the club’s most ardent supporters were born (at one time the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox owned baseball’s longest championship droughts, but that was remedied in recent years).
I give their fans much kudos for putting up with the drought, although it pales in comparison to the long-time suffering of Guardian supporters.
Still, no championship banner is no championship banner.
Sure, Supporter’s Shield honors are nice, and if we were in Europe, it would have meant the Red Bulls had won the league championship.
But we reside in America, land of the playoffs, which give teams, some undeserving sides, a second chance of biting the MLS apple (yes, pun intended).
I can wax unpoetic about the MLS playoff mess – 18 out of 29 teams will reach the postseason this year, with a best-of-three series for the opening round after a wildcard series. But that’s another headache to talk about another time.
Today, Red Bulls fans are only concerned on whether their team has the building blocks to make this a memorable season, and more importantly, the consistency come October, November and December to find find some MLS glory.
We start finding out the answers to many questions today.
For the long-standing Red Bulls supporters’ sakes, hopefully, there won’t be any new ones that arise.