If any year was destined to end the New York Red Bulls’ 10-season playoff streak, it should’ve been 2020.
Even before the pandemic split the MLS calendar into a fragmented mess, the Red Bulls were expecting some adjustment following departures of the club's all-time goal scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips and longtime goalie Luis Robles. The September firing of coach Chris Armas furthered the uncertainty of the whole situation as the Red Bulls sat near the postseason bubble, while the club’s choice for a replacement, Gerhard Struber, was unable to arrive in time for regular-season action because of issues related to his work visa and the pandemic.
Yet here we are: the MLS Cup Playoffs begin this week, and the Red Bulls will take part for the 11th consecutive campaign with hopes of capturing the MLS founding club’s elusive first championship.
That doesn’t surprise goalkeeper Ryan Meara entering Saturday’s first-round match at Columbus Crew SC.
"I've been here since 2012, and for us in this organization making the playoffs is the minimum expectation," Meara said. "Coming into this year, it was no different even though we had some transition. The goal was to always make the playoffs first and foremost, and then once we got there to make a run and really try to lift the trophy."
A year of change continued Thursday as Struber was handed the reigns of the Red Bulls, making his very first match as head coach the club’s biggest of the season. The 43-year-old Austrian is a veteran of the Red Bull organization who most recently coached Barnsley of the second-tier English Championship. After completing a series of COVID-19 protocols, including coaching masked and from a distance this week, Struber is fully embedded with the squad. He said there’s been communication with the current staff since his hiring and he already knows his starting lineup for Saturday’s match, hopefully making an immediate impact on the team.
"It’s a special situation for me and also for my team, the last few weeks I can [see] my team and watch the games only on a screen, and now I’m here," Struber said. "At the moment my big focus and concentration is only on tactical things for Saturday, I think this is my big duty at the moment."
Having any chance at a run for the MLS Cup wasn’t a guarantee when Armas’ tenure ended two months ago. The club had just three wins in its first nine matches and hadn’t show much life, sitting in seventh place with 11 points and five clubs breathing down their neck. But after assistant Bradley Carnell took over as interim coach, the Red Bulls went 6-5-2, and their title dreams remain alive as ever as the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
"That hasn't changed from day one of preseason to even through when Chris got let go, to now, that's always been the goal," Meara said. "I wouldn't say anyone in our locker room is too surprised that we're in the position we are right now."
Meara, 30, served as the backup to Robles for much of his tenure and took over the starting spot this year. The Fordham product battled a few injuries this campaign, but started the last seven games entering the postseason, in which the Red Bulls are 3-1-3. Meara said the team handled the club’s upheaval well by sticking to the organization’s core philosophies, something that should make Struber’s transition a bit easier.
"Every coach is their own individual and they're going to have their own little wrinkles here and there," Meara said. "But I think the great thing about Red Bull as an organization is that it's the same philosophy even if you watch Leipzig to Salzburg to us. It's the high press mentality, be very aggressive all over the field and just try and put the other team in really tough positions to win the ball."