November 21, 2015
Why the Red Bulls will win the MLS Cup
By Michael Lewis
Dax McCarty has been a stalwart of the Red Bulls midfield.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
Let me put it simply:
The Red Bulls will win the MLS Cup this year.
Just in case you didn't hear it the first time, the Red Bulls will win the MLS Cup this year.
Nothing against the other three teams in the conference finals -- the Columbus Crew, which the Red Bulls will face in the first leg Sunday, and the Portland Timbers and FC Dallas later on in the day. They are fine teams and any of them can win the cup. I just think this is the Red Bulls' year.
It is much more than a gut feeling. This is one of the most complete teams, if not the most comprehensive side, in the club's two-decade history.
I base my opinion on five factors:
It's the midfield, stupid
Borrowing a phrase from the 1992 presidential election -- "It's the economy, stupid" -- it is always about the midfield, in every match, as a matter of fact.
A good midfield sets the pace and rhythm and can make up for deficienies on both sides of the ball.
The Red Bulls' quintet has been fabulous this season -- on both sides of the ball.
They combined to start 156 out of a possible 170 games this game, which speaks for their quality, consistency and ability to stay away from major injuries. They also combined for 31 out of a possible league-high 62 goals the team scored during the regular season.
Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam, on the left and right flanks, have been among the most productive outside midfielders in league history with nine and 10 goals, respectively. In the middle running the show is Sacha Kljestan (eight goals, 14 assists). Behind Kljestan are team captain Dax McCarty and Felipe Martins, who have cleaned up quite well, keeping some pressure off the back four.
Some kick saves and some beauties
We all know how consistent Luis Robles has been the past three years. The goalkeeper of the year honor was a long time coming. He has been steady in the nets, keeping the Red Bulls in games when the score is tied or close and making vital stops later in the match.
He hasn't missed a beat or given up a howler this year.
And hot goalkeepers can be the difference in short series such as the playoffs.
And hey, Jurgen, are you watching? Bring Robles into January camp and give him a look. Like baseball and pitching, you can never have enough good goalkeeping in soccer. Just ask he English national team through the past three decades. Heck, Robles has a German connection, having played with Kaiserslautern and Karlsruher SC before he joined the Red Bulls.
The Bradley Wright-Phillips stuff
After a scintillating 27-goal season in which he tied the league record, Wright-Phillips came back with a great 17-goal year, tying Stern John for the best two consecutive seasons (44 goals apiece).
He said he wanted to improve his game and BWP has become a better all-around player. Don't know if you have noticed, but his defending is pretty good for a forward.
Give Jesse Marsch a lot of credit. He took over the coaching responsibilities under ridiculous conditions in the wake of the firing of popular head coach Mike Petke, rehaped the team from having high-profile Designated Players in the likes of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, brought in players he knew that could do the job in Kljestan and Felipe, and added a couple in Mike Grella and the versatile Sal Zizzo.
Marsch instituted high-pressure tactics that have kept the opposition off balance for virtually he entire season, setting the pace for many matches.
It turned into the second Supporters Shield in three years.
Marsch has done a masterful job and should be rewarded with MLS coach of the year honors. Knowing him, he would trade that in for a victory lap around Red Bull Arena on Sunday, Dec. 6 in a millisecond.
Damn the controversy, full speed ahead!
Very few fans, observers, media and pundits gave the Red Bulls much of a chance this season, writing them off as a second division team in the conference, given the preseason controversy.
The team, more or less, banded together and use that as fuel to motivate themselves, demonstrating how focused he players can be. Of course, there are many believers today for obvious reasons.
Full disclosure: I figured the Red Bulls would finish fifth in the conference, a place in front of New York City FC.
The bottom line: the team has played well together and outside of that four-game losing streak way back in the spring, the Red Bulls have been the most consistent team in the league.
Now, the Red Bulls are far from perfect. If they have an Achilles Heel, it is the back four, especially at center back, where the depth has been hurt by Damien Perrinelle's left knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the playoffs. Ronald Zubar sometimes can be a little too physical in the middle. Sometimes itís easy to forget that Matt Miazga is 20-years-old, although sometimes he can be prone to mistakes. Kemar Lawrence has been the most effective and consistent defender all season. Sal Zizzo has done a solid job after replacing the injury Chris Duvall on the right side.
Listen, I have covered the game long enough to know nothing is lock in sports, especially a sport like soccer where a team can dominate a match and still lose 1-0 because it doesn't have the finishing touch on a particular day or the opposition's keeper is standing on his head.
As many of you know, I will never be confused as a homer for the team. I have held the club's collective feet to the fire on more than one occasion, so I would like to think that would give some credence to my remarks.
In case you missed the first two times:
The Red Bulls will win MLS Cup this year.