Image Credit: Goal.com
The 2023 edition of the MLS has come to an end and with it one of most interesting and remarkable seasons to date for our wonderful league.
Wilfried Nancy led the Columbus Crew to an MLS Cup victory playing free-flowing attacking soccer, St. Louis City SC came out on top of the Western Conference in their inaugural season, and yes who could forget THAT signing Inter Miami made this summer.
Despite the incredible moments that made this season memorable, for fans of the Red Bulls a certain sense of Deja vu can creep in. There will be takeaways from this campaign that will be remembered by Metro fans for years however the season can be summed up with one familiar phrase: The New York Red Bulls were knocked out of the first round of the MLS playoffs.
Believe it or not such a familiar ending was actually a positive note. The team was reeling and embroiled in controversy before the season was stabilized under interim head coach Troy Lesesne. It also seems that some the chaos from earlier in the season has woken up the suits at Red Bulls HQ and there are some interesting signs of change going into next season. But, before everyone goes dragging the 2023 season towards the trash can in anticipation of a promising future, let’s take a last look back on one of the most intriguing seasons in this club’s history. The more things change the more they stay the same…
The high point
There was actually a point in the season where qualifying for the playoffs was a bigger pipe dream than Messi signing for the Red Bulls.
The club was languishing in the bottom end of the table and at the end of the summer only won in 1 of their 7 games including a Leagues Cup round of 16 exit to the Philadelphia Union.
Yet, seemingly motivated by their playoff record being on the line, the Red Bulls were phenomenal to close out the season winning all 5 of their remaining games. More amazing still, come Decision Day the Red Bulls were in a win and get in situation on Decision Day on the road against Nashville SC.
Nashville can be a particularly stingy team, especially at home, and on that night after a long defensive battle a scoreless draw would seem to send the Red Bulls home for good that season. Yet, after a long and stale 90 minutes, one last moment of magic. Deep into added time Luquinhas was fouled inside the box by Anibal Godoy and John Tolkin scored the penalty that not only gave the Red Bulls a win, but got them into the Play-In game as late aws physically possible.
Technically speaking the Red Bulls hadn’t made the playoffs yet and needed to beat Charlotte FC in the play-in game to qualify. And boy did they win. A 5-3 victory at home which included an Elias Manoel hat trick, a playoff first for the Red Bulls, meant they made it to the first round for the 14th straight year.
The low point
Image credit: Fox News
Just one? Really?
There are many moments from the torrid start to the campaign that could be used for this segment, but sadly none were as embarrassing as Dante Vanzeir’s suspension. During a tightly contested match between the San Jose EarthQuakes, star DP and recent signing Dante Vanzeir appeared to use a racial slur at the match official. As a result, the 5 million dollar Belgian forward was suspended for 6 matches by the MLS and has yet to truly ingratiate himself with the fanbase.
As if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, then head coach Gerhard Struber further worsened the situation by never taking Vanzeir off the pitch during the incident (?!?!?) despite the boiling hot tension between Red Bull and Earthquake players. As a result of his actions there was massive outcry notjust from Red Bulls fans but league wide both on matchdays and on social media. Despite never being fined or suspended by the club there was enough external pressure for the club to relieve Struber of his duties not long after the incident. I suppose there’s always silver linings.
Goal of the season
Given that it completely flipped the season on its head, this had to be given to Tolkin’s penalty against Nashville on Decision Day. Cool, calm, and collected Tolkin slots it into the bottom right corner. Willis never stood a chance.
There were a few other honorable mentions that stood out this season. Tolkin’s golazo against DC United as well as Elias Manoel’s second goal against Charlotte in the Play-In game. Honestly pick your choice from that shoot out. And who could forget Omir Fernandez’s screamer against NYCFC at home. Our boy from the Bronx.
Biggest issue they need to fix for next season
The biggest issue for the Red Bulls last season was very clear and that was consistent, offensive production. Despite the poor standing in the Eastern Conference table for much of the season they were actually very strong defensively, and were top 5 in most defensive metrics including having the best xG against in the league.
Scoring goals was a large problem for the Red Bulls last season. No player broke a double digit combined goals and assists for the season, this includes especially poor production from their forwards. For there to be serious change next season, there has to be a ramp up in goals scored.
This surely has to be John Tolkin twerking away after scoring the match winning penalty against the Revolution in the Leagues Cup. We love you JMi, you keep it fun.
Weirdest thing the manager said
Gerhard Struber was not well loved by Red Bulls fans prior to the incident with Dante Vanzeir but things really boiled over with the fanbase afterwards. Following his release from the club, it appears that Struber didn’t have much love for the Red Bulls either. Struber was quoted as saying “I enjoyed my time at the New York Red Bulls, It was also clear for me that I wanted to return to Europe at the end of this season, at the latest.”
Reflecting back on that awful moment that started this all, it's interesting to note that while both Vanzeir and the club apologized for the incident, Struber never did. Only “regret” for not acting more quickly. Such a shame he had to leave, couldn’t happen to a better guy.
Stat that sums them up
Bending the rules a little bit here, there's two simple statistics that sums up the Red Bulls season perfectly. That being their goal total for the season and their goals against total for the season, 36 and 39 respectively. Notably 36 goals puts them in the bottom 5 of all teams for goals scored in the 2023 season and their goals against record is tied top 5 this season. The club has got to start scoring goals if it wants to make a serious playoff push this year.
Reason to be optimistic for next season
Image Credit: New York Post
The club appears to acknowledge the need for a reset going into the new season and for once appears to be taking action on that.
Some of the moves so far have been promising. This includes moving on from Denis Hamlett as Sporting Director after seven seasons, some big roster changes like Tom Barlow to the Chicago Fire for up to $400K in GAM, and of course the high profile signing of Emil Forsberg from RB Leipzig. Other moves have received mixed reviews from the fanbase like not hiring Troy Lesesne on a permanent basis and furthermore hiring Sandro Schwarz as his replacement.
What matters the most though is that the fans have felt that change has been needed for a significant amount of time and the club is doing something about that this offseason. Hopefully that change is for the better.
Predicted finish for next season
Top 5 finish in the Eastern Conference and an appearance in the MLS cup semi finals. Who are we kidding, first round exit here we come.