The Red Bulls' highs and lows now fall squarely on Jesse Marsch

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Marsch took on more control of the club's on-field direction last winter. How's that working out for RBNY?

HARRISON, N.J. — Jesse Marsch spent much of Saturday afternoon pacing inside the chalked-out box of his technical area, staring at the ground in front of him.

Anxious for much of the game, even as his team pulled away from the Vancouver Whitecaps and toward sealing the final playoff spot in the MLS Eastern Conference, Marsch was able to exhale once the final whistle sounded.

The win was the New York Red Bulls’ first since April against a team currently in playoff position. The Red Bulls found the goals Saturday and the scoreline gave the impression of dominance and a return to the form reminiscent of years past.

But this team looks a shadow of the squad that won two Supporters’ Shields in three seasons, and although the Red Bulls are back in the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season, they are likely to witness an eighth consecutive elimination.

Marsch stood firm without explaining his part in sporting director Ali Curtis’ removal at the beginning of the year, and was largely let off the hook by the media for it. Denis Hamlett stepped into Curtis’ role, but despite the label and the corporate secrecy surrounding the decision-making process, it’s obvious who runs the show. Not long after assuming full control, Marsch kept his favored midfielder Felipe and traded Dax McCarty to the Chicago Fire.

This is Marsch’s team now, crafted with MLS Cup in mind. Is it good enough, though?

His ambition rubs off on his players, but it’s been a double-edged sword. He gets his players to commit themselves toward pursuing trophies, but he’s also left them twice this season for UEFA and U.S. Soccer coaching courses, once during the buildup to the first game against rival New York City FC. The UEFA license, in particular, sends a not-so-subtle message that Marsch does not see himself staying in MLS for very long.

Marsch’s outlook would be more commendable if it weren’t for the fact that the team he’s currently coaching will finish with its lowest regular-season point total in his tenure. In a less welcoming playoff format, New York would be on the precipice of missing the playoffs because of its poor record against top teams and an eight-game winless drought from mid-August to early October.

Had the Red Bulls won the U.S. Open Cup, Marsch might have had room to proclaim his first season with absolute power as a success, no matter what happens in the upcoming playoffs. But Sporting Kansas City's victory in the final denied him that leg to stand on.

Over the winter Marsch assumed more complete leadership of the Red Bulls’ technical staff and inherited an incomplete, fragile roster. Injuries have depleted the center-back pool, forcing Marsch to move to a three-man backline and turn Tyler Adams into a wingback. Fortunately, Aaron Long has had a fine season as the sole natural center back, while Adams remains brilliant in the new role.

Though the tactical switch led to a four-game winning streak in July, it has not solved the Red Bulls’ attacking issues. Marsch has failed to implement a two-forward attack despite acquiring three different strikers over the last two years to complement Bradley Wright-Phillips.

Gonzalo Veron was supposed to be the trequartista to link midfield to attack and free up space for Wright-Phillips, but injuries and inconsistency have seen the Designated Player be utilized as a super-sub. Anatole Abang was signed as a young striker who could develop into a strong target forward for BWP to run off, yet he’s been loaned out four times and will likely never play for the first team again.

Fredrik Gulbrandsen was brought in on loan this offseason. His loan was mysteriously terminated after 12 games, however, despite the Red Bulls telling the media that Gulbrandsen would be spending the entire season with them.

To make up for the transfer failings and tactical weaknesses, Marsch has doubled down on the us-versus-them mentality, meant to pivot the narrative toward a more positive spin.

“I think this group will relish being the underdog,” Marsch said Saturday. “We’ve been the favorite. We’ve had the target on our back and I think this is the kind of group that will enjoy having everybody think that they can’t achieve their goals.”

The inherent randomness of MLS makes any playoff run possible, and Marsch’s focus on MLS Cup above all means that the final reckoning on this season will have to wait until New York’s is done.

But the Red Bulls’ path to a first-ever league title MLS Cup will likely start at Atlanta United or at NYCFC. Should they beat either team, it would be an upset that gets rewarded with a two-legged series against league-leading Toronto FC.

Rhetoric can make up for a lot, but probably not the talent gap between the Red Bulls and any of those three teams. That test will determine whether Marsch has shouldered a greater burden than he can bear alone.