HARRISON, N.J. – Sunday afternoon’s match marked the final regular season contest at Red Bull Arena for 2016, but the Red Bulls are just getting started.
Dispatching Columbus Crew SC with a 3-2 win, New York has extended their franchise-record unbeaten streak to 15 games in league play while setting a new club record for home wins in a season with 13.
As expected, the Crew fielded somewhat of a weakened lineup, still the Red Bulls kept their foot on the gas pedal following the international break to take care of business on Supporters Day.
Top of the East
From worst to first, New York’s remarkable comeback is complete.
Of course, the Red Bulls had done that before, most recently in the 2010 season that saw them win the Eastern Conference after a dreadful 2009 campaign.
But this year was different.
Finding themselves dead last after a dismal 1-6-0 start to the season, the Red Bulls have all but reached the summit by virtue of some favorable results in D.C. and Montreal. Save for an unprecedented 13-goal turnaround in the last match of the regular season, the Red Bulls will clinch the Eastern Conference title, home field advantage all the way to MLS Cup, and a second consecutive berth to the CONCACAF Champions League.
“I think I said a lot publically that I wasn't very concerned at 1-X, but I just started to wonder at what point, 1-whatever, was going to start to hurt us at the end of the year. Looks like 1-6 was about the threshold,” head coach Jesse Marsch said. “In some ways, I think that was the best thing that happened to us. It knocked any complacency out. It put us on our toes. It made us look carefully at things. It made us push hard every day and I think that's what's gotten us here.”
Amidst that slow start, there was plenty of noise from outside the locker room, but never a doubt within. Thanks to the considerable leadership efforts of the team’s most tenured players, the Red Bulls were able to right the ship in stunning fashion.
“Jesse has really focused on character building because we know there will be difficult moments. But it’s in those difficult moments that he wants guys he can trust,” goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “A 1-6 start was certainly a difficult moment, but the guys continued to believe in one another and the quality that’s in this locker room. That character allowed us to overcome that.”
After Bradley Wright-Phillips surpassed Juan Pablo Angel’s club record for most career goals earlier this season, Red Bull Arena was adorned with a goal tracker on the east side of the stadium to commemorate the event. Yet week in and week out, that tally has continually had a short shelf life.
On Sunday afternoon, BWP added two more his career mark with goals 67 and 68 for his regular season career, and goals 22 and 23 to pad his lead atop the Golden Boot race.
A brace on the day would have most in a celebratory mood. Wright-Phillips is not most footballers.
“First half I didn’t really have much to do, I’d say it was an alright performance,” he told reporters.
Turning Columbus defender Nicolai Naess inside out with a terrific bit of skill for his first before tapping home the game-winner from close range, the Englishman continues to score at an alarming rate. A humble star, BWP has never been one to talk about his individual plaudits, but perhaps he had a bit of extra motivation to find his second on the day this time around.
“My wife is six months pregnant. I’ve been meaning to do that for a long time now,” he said after paying tribute with his second goal celebration, stuffing the ball under his shirt. “Even on the first goal I forgot and I thought ‘She’s going to flipping kill me.’ I was dying to score again.”
The Return of Grelladinho
Four months is a long time to wait.
For midfielder Mike Grella, it must have seemed like an eternity since his last league goal, which came against the Seattle Sounders back on June 19. Finding himself in and out of the team, the Long Island native had to dig deep to find a way to contribute once again, and got his just rewards with a scintillating finish to start the scoring for New York.
“I’ve stayed higher up on the pitch these last couple of games and getting more chances, so it was nice to be getting around the goal again,” Grella told reporters after the win. “I knew it was coming, so I was really pleased about getting myself into dangerous positions again.”
With the emergence of Daniel Royer, Grella found himself relegated to the bench as the Austrian found his form rather quickly after signing midseason. The drought was a challenging time for Grella, who looked to identify just why the goals had dried up.
“I think when Lloyd Sam left, I felt it was my responsibility to drop deeper and link play like he did. I do enjoy doing that, but my success comes from when I’m around the goal and higher up the field.
“The last couple of games I’d made an emphasis to run harder when we’re attacking and get into the box more.”
Over the course of his scoreless spell, there was plenty of chatter surrounding his place in the team. Had Grella’s magic run out? Could he manage to replicate his tremendous first season in New York?
For his part, Marsch never had any doubts.
“With Mike, we just tried to encourage him to let him know that it's so many things that make him good, so many things that make our team good other than just scoring goals; and to keep him pushing hard,” Marsch said.
“Sometimes I think Mike's really hard on himself. As things maybe don't start coming his way from a scoring perspective, he starts to think too much. He and I talked a little bit about the zone and players who talk about in the zone, and Michael Jordan is one of those players, where he said actually when I was in the zone, I wasn't even thinking. It's not like I wanted him to start thinking but I wanted him to stop putting so much pressure on himself and I wanted him to just go out and enjoy playing.”
As for his teammates, they always had his back.
“It was an awesome feeling for me to see Mike score that goal,” said Sacha Kljestan, the orchestrator of the opening goal. “He’s been a big part of us for two years now. He found himself out of the team there for a few weeks, but we all know the quality that he has. It was great for him to show that again to everybody.”