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Sean Nealis discusses how Red Bulls kept 12-year playoff streak alive despite mid-season struggles

Red Bulls forward Fabio, center, celebrates with Andrew

Red Bulls forward Fabio, center, celebrates with Andrew Gutman (5) and Sean Nealis, right, after Fabio scored a goal against Nashville SC in the first half of an MLS soccer match Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn.  Credit: AP/Mark Humphrey

The New York Red Bulls’ 12th straight MLS Cup playoff appearance is perhaps its most unlikely yet.

With the youngest team in Major League Soccer and a coach in his first full season, the Red Bulls appeared virtually certain for an early offseason as recent as mid-September. A 2-1 road loss to the Columbus Crew, in which the Red Bulls led with 16 minutes to go, dropped their record to 6-11-5 (23 points), eight points off pace for the final Eastern Conference postseason spot with 12 matches to play.

In the moment, head coach Gerhard Struber described the match as "like a youth team against adults."

If 2021 was to be about more than just development and identity, it was time for the Red Bulls to grow up.

"I think during the middle of the year we kind of had a little disappointment, a little lull in what we were doing," defender Sean Nealis told Newsday. "We were kind of on the outside looking in and we kind of had to reset our focus."

The turnaround that followed put the club still seeking its first MLS Cup title right back into the playoffs, opening at 2:30 p.m. Saturday with the Red Bulls visiting the Philadelphia Union in a win-or-go-home matchup. Starting with a 4-0 victory over Inter Miami on Sept. 17, the Red Bulls lost just one match down the stretch, picking up 25 points and holding on to the final postseason spot with a road draw against Nashville SC on Decision Day.

"We got together in Miami and kind of worked together on how we can win games and how we can turn our season around and obviously since then, we've gone on a run and thankfully we're in the playoffs," Nealis said.

Nealis, a Massapequa and Hofstra graduate, has cemented himself as a leader in RBNY’s back line this year, starting 28 of the club’s 34 matches. The 24-year-old said concentrating on doing the simple things correctly was key to the team reversing course.

"I think it comes down to doing the basics well and when we have the lead just relying on each other, communicating well, maybe if you have to slow the game down or if you have to speed the game up, taking your time on set pieces, those sorts of things," Nealis said. "I think we got down to basics and tried to just reassess ourselves in those situations, what we can do better in transition moments, communicating early and being in better positions early. I think throughout the last few weeks, we've kind of done the basics well which kind of helped elevate our game and push us into the playoffs."

Struber, who took charge last year just days before the Red Bulls’ first-round playoff loss, has long stated his primary goal this season was to bring the organizational identity back to the New York club. With the signature Red Bull high-energy style giving teams fits late, he believes the campaign has been a success in that regard. That doesn’t mean he’s writing off the chance at achieving something bigger against the Union.

"I think right now in our moment, with all that we learned the last few months, we can beat Philly. This is the big goal on Saturday," Struber said. "We drive not to Philly [because] it's nice to be in the playoffs. I think right now it's the time to go in the next round and we know — big respect for Philly — but we win on Saturday, that's it."

Said Nealis, "The New York Red Bulls have high expectations and hopefully we can supersede them these next few weeks."

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