A FAVOR HOUSE ATLANTIC: PART ONE | Off and running as retooled Red Bulls down D.C. in home opener

In this three-part series, Red Bulls correspondent Frank Giase will examine the three regular-season games against rival D.C. United. We’ll take a look at the mindset of the team leading up to each match, how the results impacted the standings, and how the success affected the team as a whole moving forward.

In the eyes of most Red Bulls fans, the 2014-15 offseason was the most turbulent in club history. Their beloved team that had come within one goal of reaching the MLS Cup Final in 2014 was being overhauled. Mike Petke, perhaps the most popular player in franchise history, and who had coached the team the past two seasons with great success, was let go.

Contrary to popular belief at the time, Curtis and Marsch understood.  They knew the team’s loyal fan base was craving a winner. If this change had come after yet another losing season there would have been no revolt, so Curtis and Marsch had little room for error. They knew their long-range plan had to include positive results in Season one.

The Red Bulls opened the campaign at Sporting Kansas City, the team they had eliminated in the playoffs the year before. A Lloyd Sam goal salvaged a 1-1 tie, a good point on the road, but the real test was coming. If Curtis and Marsch wanted to start to win back the fan base, they would need to beat rival D.C. United in the home opener on March 22.

There were two weeks between the SKC tie and the D.C. game, and in that time the Red Bulls players wanted to get the word out that the team was no longer about the superstar player. Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill were gone. In their place were team-oriented players who were willing to run hard for 90 minutes and be in position on both ends of the field to make a difference.

Midfielder Dax McCarty, elevated to team captain with the departure of Henry, spent the week leading up to the D.C. game trying to assure fans that reports of the team’s demise were very premature, that there were new players such as midfielders Felipe and Mike Grella and defender Ronald Zubar that they never heard of but soon would, and that players like defender Damien Perrinelle, who did not contribute much in 2014, would play a big part in 2015.

“The philosophy is to win games together as a team and not rely solely on one or two guys,” McCarty said. “Any time you have a player of Thierry’s magnitude in the team you always make it easy to give him the ball and see what kind of magic he can work out, but with his retirement things change.

“We have a whole new coaching staff, a whole new coaching philosophy, a lot of new players, a lot of very good players. We have a new way of playing. I think you’ll see throughout the season this isn’t going to be a team that can be defined by one or two players. This is going to be a team that at any given moment, seven, eight, nine guys can make a difference on the field. That’s the goal. That’s what everyone has bought into.”

Those words would ring prophetic months later, but on March 22 they were just hopeful thoughts when the Red Bulls and D.C. United met at Red Bull Arena for the first time. Though it was only the second game of the season, the pressure was on the Red Bulls to show their worth. If not, it could turn into a long season.

Many of the 21,036 fans that attended the home opener wanted a forum that large to vent their anger, which they did during the early parts of the match. But as the game settled in, so did the crowd, and what they saw seemed encouraging.

The Red Bulls moved the ball around the field with a crispness and precision that hadn’t been there in years past. They also got their first look at Marsch’s high-press offense, a philosophy that would force other teams into mistakes – mistakes the Red Bulls would capitalize on.

In the 25th minute, Bradley Wright-Phillips took advantage of a gap in the D.C. defense. Running onto a long pass by McCarty, Wright-Phillips took the ball on a bounce, popped it over the head of defender Steve Birnbaum and drove a shot past goalkeeper Bill Hamid to make it 1-0.

The goal was a significant one in the eyes of the fans and the media, many of whom felt Wright-Phillips’ incredible success in 2014, when he scored a franchise-record 27 goals, was the result of passes by Henry that set him up for easy goals. Those passes would no longer be there. And with the Red Bulls boosting Wright-Phillips to DP status in the offseason, the goal was a clear display that the Red Bulls’ new offense would make sure Wright-Phillips got involved.

It was also important to show that Wright-Phillips could be a part of the offensive flow after not being much of a factor in the opening draw against Sporting Kansas City. His assist on the goal by Sam in the 71st minute showed that Wright-Phillips intended to be involved in the offensive buildup as well. He would finish the season with seven assists, a stat he took considerable pride in.

“I hope they just accept that we’re going in a new direction and I think tonight was a very good first step to try and win them back,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan said of the fans. “We wanted to show them how we fight for each other on the field.”

Sam also understood the importance of the home opener after such a turbulent offseason.

“This was a huge game for us and I knew it going in,” he said. “A couple of the senior players knew it but we didn’t want to overemphasize it. It was a great win for all of us, Ali, Jesse, ourselves, just to keep the fans with us was important in the game.”

Marsch took a low profile for the game. He knew the team had to perform to begin the process of winning back the fan base, and that was accomplished as the team was cheered leaving the field.

“My goal is the team,” Marsch said. “And if the team is right, people will like the team and they’ll like me in turn. I’m not trying to win a popularity contest. I’m trying to coach a football team to be the best in the league. That’s my sole mission. When we get there a lot of people will appreciate the work that’s being done.”

With the season having played out the way it did, you can look back and see how early the players bought into Marsch’s philosophy, and though it took the fans a while to do the same, they eventually did.

This 2-0 victory had many layers. Four points in two games was a nice start and gave Curtis and Marsch a chance to build on their message. It also gave the players confidence and settled a fan base that had been jaded and skeptical.

Can one game so early in the season, even a victory against your most bitter rival, change the course of how the year plays out? Looking back, you have to say it did.

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