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The Story of How Silverware Eluded the MLS Team of the Decade

 

Peter Hirdt has been a New York sports fan for more than 50 years. He’s been a statistician since the 1970s. As the MLS is Back Tournament nears kickoff, Hirdt blurs fandom with data to make the case that across the entire history of U.S. sports, the New York Red Bulls’ decade of near misses is almost without precedent as they came so near, yet so far, in securing a first-ever MLS Cup.

By: Peter Hirdt

The date was July 13, 1971.

If you were a baseball fan, you were probably tuned to NBC for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. That was a must-see event back in the day. According to Nielsen, 50% of all households watching TV that night watched the All-Star Game, even though it went up against the season’s top-rated show, “Marcus Welby, M.D.” NBC’s viewers were treated to a massive home run by Reggie Jackson. You might have seen it on YouTube, and maybe it’s the longest homer you ever saw.

I loved baseball and still do, but I didn’t see Reggie’s blast that night. I was at Yankee Stadium—not for baseball, but to see New York City’s new soccer team, the Cosmos. These weren’t Pelé’s Cosmos. That was only four years off, but it was as unimaginable in the summer of ’71 as Messi playing in a local beer league seems today. These were the Cosmos of Randy Horton, a towering Bermudian with a distinctive afro and a talent for scoring goals. The club also featured Siegfried Stritzl, a slashing midfielder with a blond cut that would have looked out of place anywhere except the cover of Meet the Beatles! Like me, Stritzl grew up around the tenements of Ridgewood, NY. Because he played six years with my dad’s former semi-pro club, Blau-Weiss Gottschee of the German-American League, it felt like Sigi was one of us.

At Tiger Stadium, manager Sparky Anderson stacked six future Hall of Famers—Mays, Aaron, Torre, Stargell, McCovey and Bench—atop the NL batting order to face the summer’s hottest name in sports, Vida Blue. At age 21, Blue would take the mound with a 17–3 record and a 1.42 ERA, en route to the Cy Young and MVP awards. So why did I choose Yankee Stadium? Because even a friendly against touring Apollon of Greece was reason enough to take the 90-minute trip to Yankee Stadium on the gritty Canarsie Line and the grimy Lexington Avenue line. There were more than 60,000 empty seats when Randy and Sigi and Apollon took the field. But my cousin and I were there to watch a 1–1 friendly draw on a night when Reggie Jackson’s legendary blast was one of six homers, all hit by future Hall of Famers. That’s OK; I can still watch all those homers on YouTube. And I was hooked on a sport that was barely noticed in the U.S. 50 years ago.

So much has changed. Dad is gone and my hair is gray. The Canarsie Line has become, dare I say, fashionable? The Honourable Kenneth Howard Randolph Horton – JP, MP, and NASL Rookie of the Year in 1971 – later became the Speaker of the House of Assembly of Bermuda. And these days no one asks, “Will soccer ever make it here?” What remains the same is that soccer’s in my blood and a local pro team still gets me pumped. From Horton and Sigi to Shep and Pelé, from Der Kaiser to Chinaglia, the Cosmos were that team. And when the MetroStars arrived in 1996, filling a 10-year void after the Cosmos broke my heart, a new affair was kindled and it still burns hot. (After 10 years as the MetroStars, the team was rebranded by new ownership with its corporate name.)

Red Bulls’ Diego Jimenez holds Columbus Crew’s Guillermo Barros Schelotto during the 2008 MLS Cup in Carson, Calif.

So as the MLS is Back Tournament approaches kickoff, I’m excited about a new Red Bulls season but with some unease. The roster has undergone a few radical changes; gone are the two most prolific contributors to what was arguably the best team in MLS over the past decade. You heard that right. By at least one measure, the Red Bulls were the best team of the past 10 years in Major League Soccer. I’ll try to back that up with an army of statistics. But it’s also based on a lifetime of fandom, so it comes as much from my heart as my head when I say that the Red Bulls of the 20-teens provided almost everything a supporter would want.

Now about that word, almost. Let’s just put it out there: the one thing the Red Bulls failed to deliver was a championship – not just in the past decade, but sadly, ever. Maybe you’re a Seattle Sounders supporter and think two MLS Cup titles and three U.S. Open Cup championships give your club rights to the title “Team of the Decade.” Or you root for the Los Angeles Galaxy, who won three MLS Cups in a span of four years (2011, 2012, and 2014), and you scoff at the Red Bulls, whose only brush with that particular piece of silverware was a loss to Columbus in MLS Cup 2008. I understand that point and I admit that RBNY’s failure to win a championship has been frustrating. But it’s not all about the trophies, and I’ll get back to that later. Meanwhile, did you know that the Red Bulls had the highest winning percentage in MLS regular-season games during the decade of the teens?

These were the top five teams, with a draw counting for a half-win and half-loss:

TeamWDLPts.Pct.
Red Bulls1558497549.586
Sounders FC15973104550.582
LA Galaxy14884104528.565
FC Dallas13896102510.554
Real Salt Lake14480112512.548

That RBNY couldn’t parlay their success into an MLS Cup title isn’t only frustrating to supporters, it’s just plain weird. It’s almost without precedent, in fact. Across all the major pro sports in the U.S., only four other teams recorded their league’s highest winning percentage over an entire decade and didn’t produce a championship during that time.

Before we get to the roll call, let’s define parameters. (Skip this paragraph if you routinely check the “I agree” box without reading what’s above it.) We included MLB, MLS, the NFL, NBA, NHL, and WNBA. We considered only leagues that operated in all 10 seasons of a decade, and only teams that played in every season. Sorry, LAFC. We combined the AL and NL, treating MLB as a single entity. And as for what constitutes a decade, we used the common definition – for example, for the 1990s we used 1990 through 1999. For the real geeks out there—and I fondly include myself and colleagues who had long discussions about this—we used actual dates for the winter sports. For example, Jan 1, 1990 through Dec. 31, 1999 for the 1990s, dividing some seasons between decades in the process.

The other teams with a decade’s highest winning percentage but no league title to show for it are shown in the accompanying table. But here’s the thing: the Red Bulls never even reached the MLS Cup Final during the 2010s. As the table indicates, the Giants played in the World Series four times from 1910 through 1919, as did the Yankees in 1981; the Fire played in MLS Cup 2000 and 2003.

Besides RBNY, the only team with its league’s best record over a decade that failed even to reach its final was the Yankees, also from 2010 to 2019.

DecadeLeagueTeamReached Finals
1910-10MLBN.Y. Giants1911, 1912, 1913, 1917
1980-89MLBN.Y. Yankees1981
2000-09MLSChicago Fire2000, 2003
2010-19MLBN.Y. Yankeesnone
2010-19MLSRed Bullsnone

Does it matter to you whether your team’s best players are also among the league’s best, and that they are players you can respect, with no acting out on the field or on social media? If that’s the case then you couldn’t ask for more than Bradley Wright-Phillips and Luis Robles.

Neither player was with the Red Bulls for the entire decade. That rarely happens these days. The only players who remained with the same MLS team throughout the 2010s were Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, and Tony Beltran with Real Salt Lake, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi with Sporting KC, and Chris Wondolowski with San Jose.

Robles arrived late in the 2012 season, and BWP debuted for RBNY late in 2013. Starting from their first full seasons in MLS and for the remainder of the decade, they were the league leaders in shutouts and goals, respectively, and both by wide margins.

Wright-Phillips was also a solid citizen. The zero at the bottom of his Red Card column, spanning 215 regular-season and playoff matches with the Red Bulls, is a fitting symbol. Another string of zeroes speaks to his leadership and maybe even humility: Wright-Phillips had a good record on penalty kicks for RBNY (8-for-11), but he never stepped forward to take a penalty during his last three seasons with the team.

Taking off my statistician’s cap for a moment and donning my supporters’ scarf, I’d suggest that those numbers are unnecessary if you saw the way Wright-Phillips conducted himself on the field.

Robles famously shattered the league record by playing in 183 consecutive regular-season matches. He was more fiery than BWP, befitting his role as team captain. But it was Robles’ calming influence after fan-favorite manager Mike Petke was replaced by Jesse Marsch in 2015 that defined his place in club lore every bit as much as his play on the field. Robles coolly volleyed a series of loud and sometimes profane rants by distraught supporters in a raucous public forum, ensuring that Marsch wouldn’t be proverbially run out of town before he debuted.

And that brings us to the role of RBNY’s managers. Hans Backe brought stability during his three-year tenure to start the decade. But it was Petke who won the hearts of fans, and it was Marsch who overcame that controversial start to become the winningest head coach in club history (58 victories, 35 losses, 25 draws), implementing a high press that was as attractive of a playing style as it was successful.

Former Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke

Petke returned to Red Bull Arena as head coach in 2013 with an already established place in team history. At that time, he was the club’s all-time leader in appearances; his Long Island background, and the accent to prove it, made him all the more endearing to RBNY supporters. When Petke joined Dave Sarachan (2003 Fire), Tom Soehn (2007 D.C. United), and Robert Warzycha (2009 Crew) as the only full-year managers to win the Supporters Shield in their first season as an MLS head coach, his legend grew. (Technically Thomas Rongen also did it with D.C. United, but that was in MLS’ first season of play.)

Petke’s dismissal following another successful season in 2014 (fourth place in the East, and a loss to New England in the Conference Finals) set off the fireworks that were defused by Robles and which delivered Marsch to Harrison, NJ. Marsch gained 167 points from 2015 through 2017. That’s the second-highest total in MLS history by any head coach in his first three seasons with any team, behind only Oscar Pareja (174 points for FC Dallas in 2014–16).

Like Petke, Marsch won a Supporters Shield in his first season at RBNY, and he also took the team to the U.S. Open Cup Final in 2017. But for me, it was the style of play that he introduced that made watching the Red Bulls so enjoyable. After Marsch was named an assistant coach at RB Leipzig two years ago, he described that style as “a high-press, high-energy style of play. But it’s not just that; it’s a way of life.”

At Stats Perform, we have other ways to describe how the Red Bulls played under Marsch, using proprietary metrics such as:

High Turnovers: The number of sequences that start in open play and begin 40 meters or less from the opponent’s goal.

Pressed Sequences: The number of sequences during which the opposition has three or fewer passes and the sequence ends within 40 meters of their own goal.

PPDA: Passes Per Defensive Action is the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team’s own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third.

Start Distance: Average distance from their own goal that a team’s open play sequences start.

Direct Speed: Distance per second progressed upfield in open play sequences.

Sequence Time: The average time (in seconds) per sequence.

(click to enlarge)

In 2017, Marsch’s last full season with the club, the Red Bulls led MLS in every one of those categories, most notably forcing 182 High Turnovers. They attacked higher on defense, started their own sequences further upfield, and moved the ball more quickly in attack than did any other team in Major League Soccer.

(click to enlarge)

Chris Armas, the current head man on the sideline, has already acquitted himself well. Armas replaced Marsch in July 2018, with the club in second place in the Eastern Conference, and he rallied RBNY to its third Supporters Shield in the decade. But with Tyler Adams gone to RB Leipzig and Wright-Phillips injured for much of the year, 2019 was not as successful. And at the start of the 2020, Robles was in goal for Inter Miami and BWP was fighting for playing time at LAFC.

So when the MLS is Back Tournament reboots the season, Red Bulls supporters will be seeing a much different team, albeit a younger one built around what is arguably the best All-American center back pairing in league history: 2018 MLS Defender of the Year Aaron Long and Long Islander Tim Parker. Both have earned caps for the U.S. National Team.

But after a decade of success, the question asked most often about RBNY is around that nagging issue: Do the Red Bulls have the roster to take the final step to an MLS title? Having followed this team for 25 years, I will answer in two different ways: First, it feels as though the window has closed a bit – that the club was stronger in the recent past than it is now and may have missed its best chance to claim the Cup.

Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas

But my other comment is that, for me at least, a Cup wouldn’t change things all that much. I watch a lot of games and I derive a quiet pleasure from watching the Red Bulls win, whether it’s an early-season slog against a nondescript non-conference opponent or a crucial playoff game in early November. Both make me happy; neither changes my life. I guess a pandemic and that previously noted gray hair only enhance that view.

And how might the past decade have played out with even one or two of the following players still in the squad: Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Ream, Matt Miazga, and most recently Tyler Adams.  I didn’t see the Red Bulls hoist a trophy, but I watched all those players develop in their earliest days as professionals.  Those are great memories and purely from a fan’s perspective I’m not sure I’d trade them for hardware.

But here’s the ultimate irony: Remember that list of teams with a league-best winning percentage but no championship appearance, win or lose, over an entire decade? The one with only two teams – both from New York and both during the decade that just ended? It was watching the Yankees in recent years that brought me to my Red Bulls epiphany. I no longer stress about whether the teams I support reach the playoffs, advance through the postseason, or win a title.

That’s all great, I admit. But the smaller joys of watching a team win regularly over the course of many months – and the cumulative experience of watching such a season unfold – matters just as much to me, if not more, than seeing them hoist a trophy on the final night of many.

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