Win in Chicago lets New York control the narrative around its 2017 rebuild

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It's not about Dax McCarty. It's about the vision of the Red Bulls, one that received more vindication in MLS' knockout round.

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CHICAGO – This game will be boiled down to who won the Dax McCarty trade, and that’s fine, but the 4-0 win over the Chicago Fire in the knockout round more so represented a lifeline for a New York Red Bulls program that was desperate for a validating moment.

The decision to trade McCarty in the offseason was as much about Jesse Marsch’s belief in his system as it was in the players that got more minutes as a result. McCarty wasn’t going to fit in the 4-2-2-2 Marsch initially planned, and nor have Tyler Adams or Sean Davis transitioned perfectly into the central role McCarty played so well for the Red Bulls in seasons past.

But Marsch believed strongly in moving forward with a pressing system, and he believed in the idea of pushing young players onto the field – even if it meant trading a trusted veteran away. For Marsch, that veteran was McCarty, who was the best player on the field despite his team’s 4-0 loss. It was less a gamble and more a doubling-down on philosophy.

“If I reflect back on it, it was always a hard thing to do – it’s still hard to think about,” Marsch told reporters this week. “But for me, it was the right thing to do. And to see the way that Sean Davis and Tyler Adams have blossomed this year made me feel good about the fact that we needed to make room for those guys. … But whatever happens in this game and this series has nothing to do with the Dax storyline.”

Marsch was willing to bet his system would prevail no matter who was shipped out and who was plugged in. He also had to reinforce the Red Bulls’ worldwide belief in developing and promoting its own young talent.

After a season in which the Red Bulls dropped from Supporters’ Shield contenders to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, and after a U.S. Open Cup that fell short in the final, Marsch needed to at least get the Red Bulls to the Eastern Conference semifinals to be able to sell the progress that was made on a systemic level, and not just an individual one.

“It’s our way,” Marsch said after the win. “It doesn’t necessarily make it the right way. It’s our way. It’s widespread, it’s not just New York Red Bulls, it’s not just me. It’s how we think about the game together.

“We haven’t really achieved anything yet. I don’t want to talk about validations or anything. There is a lot more work to be done. It’s a big win, we feel good about it, but we’ve got to really quickly switch our brains and minds and look forward to Toronto and ready for an incredibly tough series against one of the best teams in league history.”

There’s no doubt Adams benefitted from being on the field more – you also have to guess he would’ve worked his way into the lineup no matter what, especially considering how he’s fit in as a wingback. Sean Davis, too, got about 700 more minutes this season. More importantly, however, Marsch wanted to prove that he could still have success even when bringing younger players into the picture. This is the Red Bull way – from New York to Salzburg to Leipzig.

It hasn’t been a perfect season by any stretch. But it would be a season that went backward in the shorter term if the Red Bulls didn’t get a win against Chicago. Not even Adams’ progress would have saved that fact.

It might sound silly that one result – one win – matters that much. But that’s how easily narratives can take hold and impact actual decision-making at the highest levels. Marsch can still set the narrative for this season. He knows that, and he knows every win amplifies that message.

“We believe in what we did, we believe in who we are,” he said. “But it’s not time to start congratulating ourselves, that’s for sure.”

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