Latest heartbreak may signal another wasted generation for Red Bulls
“In the moment, there’s no consolation prize.”
Jesse Marsch is in the interview room at Children’s Mercy Park — a glass-walled space overlooked on one side by one of the fan lounges. As cheerful Sporting KC fans file out into the night beside him, to celebrate the team’s third U.S. Open Cup in six years, and another beat in the burgeoning myth of Children’s Mercy Park, few of them are glancing over through the glass, to watch the New York Red Bulls’ coach try to salvage something philosophical from defeat.
The popular story of this final will be the securing of Kansas City’s Cup dynasty; of it becoming the most successful MLS team, in terms of trophies won, since its move to Children’s Mercy Park in 2011 and spectacular reinvention as a franchise.
But as one local reporter now asks a mildly incredulous Marsch to comment on that achievement, it serves to remind that another alternate storyline remains on ice for now — that of the Red Bulls finally winning a Cup in knockout play. Three finals, three defeats, and never holding a lead in any of them. That’s before we even get to the numerous playoff chokes. As Marsch points out, consolation is in short supply.
The weary-looking coach does his best, however — moving on from resigned fatalism to lifting his chin to claim that “something special is brewing” with this group of players. He points to the fight that his team, and particularly his young players, had shown throughout the final.
He’s not wrong about the kids. Had the Red Bulls earned an unlikely equalizer deep into injury time, we’d be sitting here talking about Tyler Adams’ MVP performance. Later, when I speak with goalkeeper Ryan Meara, he will say that Marsch had told the locker room that several boys had became men during the course of the final.
But left hanging in that claim was another aspect of the Red Bulls’ performance — the fact that the men they look toward to guide their younger peers had once again not performed to their potential. Captain Sacha Kljestan’s misplaced passes brought to mind the form of Michael Bradley in the wake of the World Cup — all willingness to take on responsibility, and no … well, fun.
He had his moments — a swift give-and-go move with a marauding Adams briefly looked like it might be about to ignite the Red Bulls’ night during the first half, only for Adams’ dangerous curled cross to be met with a ponderous touch by Bradley Wright-Phillips on the edge of the box. Goal aside, that moment was typical of the striker’s night.
Wright-Phillips would get his goal in the opening seconds of second-half injury time, and in doing so would become the joint top goalscorer in the competition. But having kept his side in the Open Cup with ruthless goals in the semifinals, he was back to looking cautious and self-conscious in the final.
His performance against FC Cincinnati will still be the stuff of club legend, but now it will be part of an ongoing legend that long preceded his time at the club, about key New York victories somehow just postponing disappointment for another day. His presence at the Red Bulls is a little reminiscent of Fredy Montero’s in his Seattle Sounders incarnation — a talismanic force during the regular season, and undoubted focal point of the attack, but always waiting to translate into a dominant playoff force.
After Marsch’s press conference, Wright-Phillips will show up to meet the small press pack outside the Red Bulls locker room. He can barely lift his head. Win or lose, he sometimes gives the impression of parenting himself in postgame interviews — like he stays humble by keeping a strict voice in his head that tells him to. Right now it looks like that voice is telling him he should be ashamed of himself.
“Too little, too late,” he mutters, when asked about his goal, before turning attention to the coming weekend’s game with Columbus.
“I’m glad it’s a quick turnaround because I don’t want to dwell on feeling like this,” he said, describing himself as “devastated” by this latest big-game failure. “I really thought we were going to win this one.”
Interviews concluded, Wright-Phillips walks back into the locker room, head still bowed, before returning with his game shirt, quietly asking a Red Bulls staffer if they’d mind taking it to the Kansas City player who’d asked for it.
“Rubio, I think. Do you mind taking it? I just…” He tails off and gestures vaguely, before the voice in his head reminds him to be considerate of others. “Sorry it’s a bit sweaty.”
Kljestan also spoke, meeting the eyes of each questioner with the kind of big-picture evenness that he generally brings to his captaincy. I remind him we’d spoken preseason about the young players coming through and he starts reeling off names like Adams, Davis, Long, Murillo, Escobar and how the benefits of playing in their first final will stand them in good stead for what looks, at best-case scenario, like “a knockout game that will be like a final” to advance in the playoffs.
But with Atlanta and Montreal getting big road wins earlier in the evening, even a low playoff slot is not guaranteed. And the silver lining that is the emergence of the Red Bulls’ young guard only serves to remind that, all of a sudden, time seems to be running out for another version of the Red Bulls — the blue-collar, team-is-the-star workers who replaced the gilded era of Thierry Henry et al.
Wright-Phillips, Kljestan and Luis Robles are still at the peak of their influence, but won’t be getting better; Dax McCarty has gone. Key elements of the side have plateaued and the organization’s transfer priorities suggest that unless more boys become men, the next step could remain as elusive as it has always been.
And there are questions about the coach himself. Marsch has transformed the sense of professionalism about the team’s preparations, but come gameday there’s some legitimate criticism of the way he sets up his teams, and of the substitutions he makes to try and alter things.
Marsch arrived as Red Bulls coach with little margin for error with the fanbase, when he replaced Mike Petke. Petke had brought the club its first trophy, and just as importantly for longtime fans, he represented a link to the club’s folk history that had survived the purchase by Red Bull.
Marsch, by contrast, arrived with the popular suspicion of being a company man, and while he visibly relished the challenge of winning fans over, and instantly matched Petke’s Supporters’ Shield achievement, he has never quite been loved in the way Petke was. A first Cup would have gone a long way to changing that.
“You can tell it’s coming,” he insisted on Wednesday night. But not right now. Not this moment.