The Red Bulls have lofty goals this season, and while making the playoffs may be the lowest achievement on the list, it is the key to accomplishing everything else.
That’s why, following Sunday night’s 2-0 victory over the Timbers in Portland, there was little celebration in qualifying for the postseason, even though they were the first team in Major League Soccer to do so.
“We just mentioned it at the end of the game,” coach Jesse Marsch said. “The fact that we’ve gotten in now means that it removes any anxiety in terms of getting over that little final game or hurdle. We haven’t talked about it too much because it’s not really the end goal and we’ve put ourselves in a good enough position where we all knew that that was inevitable.
“Now what’s important is that we just continue the process of what we do every day and how we do it and how we get better, and I know our guys are committed to that. It’s what’s gotten us here so far and it’s what going to continue to help us get better.”
“There was definitely a lot of positive vibes in the locker room after the game,” said midfielder Dax McCarty, who sat out the game, along with defender Connor Lade, due to yellow card accumulation. “There was a lot of clapping and a lot of, I’d say, not relief, but just quiet confidence because one of our goals was to make the playoffs and we always believed that it was possible.
“And now, being the first team to make the playoffs, is just kind of validation. It’s a little bit of confidence but it’s a little bit of unfinished business because we realized that we’re only one-third of the way to our goal and our goal should be to obviously win MLS Cup and now we can make a push for the Supporters’ Shield. We have the playoffs locked away. We’ll just take it one game at a time going forward.”
McCarty and Lade made the trip to Portland to root on their teammates. They watched the game from a stadium box, but it wasn’t easy not being on the field.
“I can always say it was easy, but it’s always frustrating and it’s always a little disappointing,” McCarty said about sitting out. “You feel like you let the guys down whenever you miss games. To a certain extent, I felt like I let the guys down by getting a stupid yellow card in New England and kind of losing my head there for a little bit, so that was frustrating because I was one game away from the good behavior (rule), and if I would have gotten through New England I would have gotten one taken away.
“To be so close and then for it to happen so early in the game to get a yellow and know that you’re suspended for the next game with more than 60 minutes of the game left, that was gut-wrenching. I was frustrated and I was upset at the time but I had faith. Connor and I both said we wanted to go to Portland and support the guys and I thought the response and the performance was just fantastic.”
And that leads to the next goal, the Supporters’ Shield. The Red Bulls have 48 points, one more than the Columbus Crew, two more than the Revolution and three more than D.C. United in the crowded Eastern Conference. They also have two games in hand on the three teams.
In the West, the Vancouver Whitecaps also have 48 points, but have played 29 games to the Red Bulls’ 28. FC Dallas has also played 28 games and has 47 points, while the Los Angeles Galaxy has 47 points and the Seattle Sounders 45. Both have played 30 games.
“We all knew. We were all following the games Saturday,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “The top four teams in the league all lost by big score lines. We knew going into the game that a win would put us on top of the table. We knew what was at stake, we didn’t talk about it much, but we definitely knew what was going on.
“The end goal is MLS Cup, that’s the most important thing that we’ve talked about since the beginning of the season. We set ourselves goals and making the playoffs was one of them, but it’s not really an accomplishment. Everything needs to be celebrated. To put yourself with a chance to win the Cup you have to make the playoffs, so we’ve given ourselves a chance to win the Cup now. The most important thing is finishing the season strong, giving ourselves a good chance for home field advantage in the playoffs.”
Added midfielder Mike Grella: “We want to take care of our objectives and we always wanted the three points, but for sure that opened the door for us and gave us some extra motivation that we could be top of the table or tied for top of the table if results went our way, and it did, so that was extra motivation.”
But making the playoffs was always the goal. Recently, Marsch said it didn’t matter if the Red Bulls finish first or sixth, and considering how the playoffs play out each year, he might be right. The playoffs are a crapshoot, and the top seeds don’t always make MLS Cup. Still, he admits there are advantages to finishing as one of the top two teams in the conference.
“The only way that matters is getting MLS Cup at home,” he said. “There’s not much of an advantage, obviously if you can be first or second and avoid the play-in game, you could say that’s an advantage, but from then on in it’s a battle.
“I’ve been on teams that squeaked in and did really well, I’ve been on teams that dominated the whole season and either lost first round or struggled, so nothing’s a given and we’ve known that all year long and we’ll be prepared for whatever kind of series or whatever kind of games we’ll be in in the playoffs, partly because we’ve been in games like the New York series and the D.C. series and some of the really meaningful games we’ve had this year.”
So now that the Red Bulls are in the playoffs, does that ease the pressure or remove the chip on the shoulder they’ve been playing with all season?
“I don’t think we’re feeling too much pressure throughout the whole season because we just wanted to do what we wanted to do and whatever results happened is down to the game of football,” Grella said. “We have objectives that we want to accomplish and we have things we want to execute, so we don’t really feel the pressure.
“I think for sure, our aim was to get into the playoffs but our aim is for even higher than that and the team deserves that because of all the work we’ve put in. It’s such a great group that we have and the team deserves to have higher objectives than just making the playoffs. We’re definitely aiming even higher and I don’t think we’ve accomplished anything yet.”
McCarty agreed, and added that there’s no way the team takes the foot off the pedal so close to the postseason.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “That’s something that we carried with us all season. We’re well respected enough around the league to where teams talk about us as a dangerous opponent, but we don’t care. We still feel like we have another level we can get to, and the only way we can get to the highest level that we’re capable of is to carry a chip on our shoulder and to go into every game thinking that the other team doesn’t respect us and our abilities and what we’re able to do.”