The New York Red Bulls are not a bad team by any means. They sit fifth in the Eastern Conference, which would put them in the playoffs. They are perfectly respectable. But the Red Bulls are not good.
"Respectable" isn't the standard in Harrison, N.J. Not after finishing first in the East last season and winning the Supporters' Shield in two of the previous three years. For all the jokes of "that's so Metro" (and no, the Red Bulls haven't won an MLS Cup yet), there is no doubting that they have been one of MLS's elite teams for the better part of five years now. So simply making the playoffs isn't good enough at Red Bull Arena. They expect more.
Trading Dax McCarty in the offseason left a giant hole in the Red Bulls midfield and dropping Sacha Kljestan deeper on the field didn't work. Last season's league leader in assists has just six this year, as being pulled further away from Bradley Wright-Phillips neutered the New York attack, and they haven't gotten enough help elsewhere. The Red Bulls' 17 goals are second-worst in the entire Eastern Conference.
But there is reason for hope.
The Red Bulls beat the Philadelphia Union last week and have scored in five of their last six contests. That includes a U.S. Open Cup victory against New York City FC.
Ah yes, NYCFC. The Red Bulls' rivals look like a good team ... again. Last season, the Red Bulls chased them down to take the top spot in the East, which they have to do again this season. They’re already nine points behind first place Toronto FC and two places behind NYCFC, but they have a chance to make up a third of that on Saturday (1:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
It is there that they will send out Tyler Adams, still just 18 years old, but fresh off of a scintillating U-20 World Cup for the United States. And it was in that U.S. Open Cup clash where he put forth his best performance yet for the Red Bulls, completely dominating the midfield against NYCFC. Asking a teenager to make up for the gaping hole in the midfield that an all-MLS player like McCarty left sounds downright foolish, but it's also the Red Bulls' best option and, so far, the kid is doing everything his team needs and more.
Meanwhile, Wright-Phillips is starting to find his stride again. Last season's Golden Boot winner scored twice in the win over Philadelphia and now has four goals in his last four MLS matches. Kljestan assisted on just one of them, but getting him further up the pitch -- both because of the system, which changed two months ago, and with a more cohesive midfield that gets him the ball without having to come back -- has bettered the Red Bulls' movement in the final third. That's paid off for Wright-Phillips, who also looks more comfortable with the space afforded to him as a lone striker, as opposed to the two-man front that RBNY toyed with.
Of course, there is also just a natural return to form. The Red Bulls stumbled early on in part because quality players who they've depended on before struggled. It wasn't exactly pretty to watch, but it was always going to correct itself in time, and it has.
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The result is a Red Bulls team showing signs of reaching the heights they've become accustomed to. But right now, they're just signs. A good way to turn signs into a meaningful leap up the table is with a win over their rivals, though.
NYCFC may be the better team, but there's an argument to be made that they're not even favorites in Saturday's match. After all, this is a rivalry that has been decidedly red -- the Red Bulls have won six of seven matches against the men in blue since NYCFC was formed.
The Red Bulls have work to do, but if they're back on top of the East come the fall, we'll look back at two wins over NYCFC in June as the springboard to their season. They have one of those wins. Now they have to pick up the second.