Red Bulls protect their place and their turf with victory over NYCFC

HARRISON, N.J.

In the wake of their first victory over New York City FC, the bulk of the Red Bulls squad made their way over to the South Ward. Laps of honor are not commonplace in the middle of the season on this side of the pond, but there were reasons to revel in this shared moment together.

For the players on the field and the supporters on it, it proved a fitting way to conclude this anticipated night. They poured their hearts and their souls into it and protected their essence and their shield with every fiber of their being. Their reward arrived in those precious moments as they reveled in this 2-1 triumph.

Make no mistake: the outcome mattered dearly to these Red Bulls. They arrived first on the scene 20 years ago and toiled through difficult year after difficult year. They meandered through the wilderness of investor/operator changes and off-the-field drama without losing the core of their changing club. They suffered through the departure of club icon Mike Petke during the close season and watched this revamped squad rise from the ashes of turnover to embody everything they ever hoped to see.

The seven-match unbeaten streak to start the season introduced this new era before the defeat in New England last weekend, but this night served as the coming out party against the noisy neighbors. NYCFC sashayed onto the scene with designs on calling New York its own from the outset. This night served as a reminder that the Red Bulls — the team here all along, for better or for worse — did not plan to cede the ground willingly.

“I knew it would be awesome in the stadium tonight and I think it was incredible,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “It did exceed my expectations and I think what I like about our crowd right now is that they get what we’re trying to do, they get how we’re trying to play, and they respond to it so it makes it even have more energy at the right time so it feels like an educated crowd and an educated fan base.”

Their wit buttressed Marsch’s claims (“Man City Lite: 20 years late and a stadium short,” the biting pre-game tifo proclaimed shortly before kickoff), while their support urged the players to embrace the occasion.

Bradley Wright-Phillips punctuated the Red Bulls’ storming start with a goal after just four minutes, but the response after Matt Miazga’s second yellow card offered a greater measure of the character in the ranks. The circumstances tilted against them once more, yet the Red Bulls persisted without shirking away from the magnitude of the affair.

Wright-Phillips’ second goal shortly after halftime reinforced the potency of this possession-oriented side on the counter. The resulting back-and-forth fare as the match stretched underscored the willingness to commit to the expansive brief preached by Marsch when the game allows for it.

The entire performance — including the response after Patrick Mullins’ reply created a nervy finish — constituted an important benchmark for a side with a keen awareness of its own emerging principles. All of the fears about the fate of the team in the wake of the departures of Petke, Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry appear misplaced at the moment. This group is solid enough defensively (Miazga’s impending departure for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and Ronald Zubar’s suspect fitness will present some hurdles, though), while the menace of Lloyd Sam on the right, the precision from Felipe, Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty in midfield, and the ruthlessness from Wright-Phillips reinforce the quality within the ranks even without Cahill and Henry in the fold.

If there is one common theme, it is the importance of the collective now after years of reliance on moments of inspiration instead. There are standouts within the ranks, but the Red Bulls’ fate hinges on the shared mentality cultivated over the first couple of months the season and the willingness of these players to pitch in for the pursuit of those objectives. 

“Whenever big changes happen and you lose a lot of good players, you’re always going to fight for respect,” McCarty said. “I think we’ve proven that we’re going to be OK this year, but we’re still fighting to gain respect. We want to be one of the top teams in the league. It doesn’t matter who we have in our locker room or who left our locker room. We believe that we’re a team that’s always going to be at the top of the East and, hopefully, fighting for the Supporters’ Shield. We want to fight for trophies. Tonight is a good example of the type of squad that we have. We had to make sure we came out of here as winners.”

Every moment betrayed the importance of that quest for these Red Bulls. Their identity and their place in the pecking order came under threat from the moment NYCFC arrived on the scene. Their first riposte — from the diehards in the stands through the players on the field — showed this club is prepared to fight for every inch and share in the successes and the failures together.