September 26, 2016
Appreciating the Red Bulls and NYC FC turnarounds and what Marsch and Vieira did for their teams
By Michael Lewis
Patrick Vieira has done a superb job in turning around the fortunes of NYC FC, as has Jesse Marsch with the Red Bulls.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
Five minutes into stoppage time at Red Bull Arena Saturday night, referee Jorge Gonzalez blew his whistle several times to signify the end of the Red Bulls' 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact.
The result had multiple meanings. Not only did the Red Bulls book a post-season spot for the seventh successive season -- the entire time they have called RBA home -- they also opened the door for their Hudson River Derby rivals, New York City FC, to qualify for the playoffs in only its second season.
Whether that moment will have some more history-making ramifications for metropolitan-area soccer fans in October or November, it remains to be seen and is a topic that will be broached further down in this story.
At the moment, we have to appreciate how both teams bounced back from early-season adversity to pursue their quest for MLS Cup glory and give some credit to their coaches, the Red Bulls' Jesse Marsch and City's Patrick Vieira.
Given what they had to accomplish, they should be given consideration for MLS coach of the year.
The Red Bulls started the season in the worst way possible, losing six of their first seven matches (actually, it probably could have been worse by losing all seven, but that would be quibbling). As those they were jinxed, they lost three starters -- including both center backs -- incredibly to hamstring injuries in the one win they had accrued, a 4-3 comeback triumph at home over the Houston Dynamo March 19.
And so began a parade of healthy players in the center back spot -- outside backs Kemar Lawrence and Chris Duvall were even used there -- while Marsch prayed to the soccer gods that Damien Perrinelle's recovery from a knee injury in last year's playoffs would not be delayed or with complications.
In wake of that 1-6 start, pundits were saying how difficult or next to impossible it would be for the Red Bulls to reach the postseason. Let's face it, three points after only seven matches to start the season isn't the recipe in any first division league on this planet for success.
But the Red Bulls and Marsch persevered. Perhaps some fans, observers and experts felt he was just giving "coach talk" but he never panicked or wavered from his system or style of play as the team righted itself. Marsch deserves much praise for piecing together defensive pairings and keeping the team's spirits up during those early dark days to turn around his sides' fortunes.
Since that nightmare start, the Red Bulls have been the hottest team in the league with a 12-3-9 mark. They own a 13-game unbeaten streak (6-0-7), 16 (8-0-8) if you count three CONCACAF Champions League matches (the last time they lost was a 2-0 defeat at City on July 3). And on Tuesday, the Red Bulls can reach the competition's knockout round for the first time if they get a result at Antigua GFC in Guatemala.
Some pretty head times for the team, don't you think?
The Red Bulls' Achilles Heel has been its inability to hold two-goal leads during their unbeaten streak as they saw three-point victories turn into one-point draw five times since July.
After the game, Marsch made light of that, saying perhaps the team was better with a one-goal advantage.
If the Red Bulls continue to give away leads, their playoff stay will be a short one. If they can be consistent in closing out games, they could go a long, long way.
Across the river, Vieira inherited a first-year expansion team that went 10-17-7 under Jason Kreis, who was unceremoniously fired after the season. Vieira, with no pro coaching experience on his resume, was a stranger to MLS and as we all know, virtually every foreign coach who has come into the league has struggled with their respective teams.
Of course, Vieira has a much different resume than most foreign coaches. His pedigree as a top holding midfielder for those famous French sides that won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euro Championship and for those fabulous Arsenal sides precede him when he enters the room.
Yet, his coaching background was virtually nil, except for directing Manchester City's Elite Development Squad. Coaching a team in the first division and under scrutiny is much more of a challenge. So, Vieira had a lot on the line and much to prove with NYC FC.
True, City already had three pretty impressive Designated Players in David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, but just because a team has big name players doesn't necessarily mean automatic success.
Dispatching some players and bringing others in, Vieira also conjured up a rather audacious plan to transform the team. He decided to deploy three forwards in a league where many sides use but one man up front. It looked liked a dangerous tactic in modern times, at least) that could blow up in the World Cup winner's face (BTW, it should be noted that the preferred formation for many teams in the original North American Soccer League was a 4-3-3).
City proved otherwise in its 4-3 season-opening win over the Chicago Fire, which served notice to the league on how dangerous the team could be. After that rather forgettable 1-3-5 start at home (cashing in on only eight out of a possible 27 points), NYC FC has acquitted itself well since them behind a seven-game unbeaten streak (6-0-1) at Yankee Stadium. The Blues also are tied with Toronto for the most road wins in the league with six apiece.
Vieira also has proven to be a very good teacher, getting his message out to his younger players who have fit into his new system.
City's Achilles' Heel is its defense, or lack thereof, a weakness that could plague to the team in the post-season.
Still, the Blues are far from feeling the blues these days considering their success.
It is quite ironic that both teams booked their postseason berths at the exact same time.
Hmmm. Perhaps this is an omen for the playoffs, that the teams would stage an historic confrontation in the conference semifinals or final. Now wouldn't that be the ultimate Hudson Derby. Unless there is a considerable change in the league's playoff structure that would be the closest thing to the teams play in MLS Cup.
Of course, several things have to fall into place. Barring an 11th-hour surge by the Philadelphia Union, which visits the Red Bulls Saturday, Toronto FC, the Red Bulls and NYC FC are the three sides fighting for the top two slots in the conference that will keep them out of the one-shot, mid-week first-round playoff matches on Oct. 26 and 27.
None of those three sides wants to play mid-week because it is a one-shot deal and as the survivors will have only but a few days a rest to prepare for the semifinals that weekend.
As I have said many times before, I do't root for a particular team, but for a story. And in this situation, the best story is a Red Bulls-NYC FC clash in the conference final.
Until then, though, there are many, many more hoops to jump through in the regular and post seasons.
Right now, fans should enjoy the moment and moments to come.