The New York Red Bulls might not win the MLS Cup that has eluded them since the league's launch in 1996, but by most measurements they've been the best MLS team in 2015.
They were the
first team to clinch a playoff berth with a 2-0 win at the Portland Timbers on Sunday, and they enter MLS's home stretch with the best points-per-game average in the league
. They lead MLS in goals-per-game and are tied for
second in fewest goals allowed.
They've been the best team in MLS over the last three months, since the opening of the summer transfer window that triggered a wave of mid-season arrivals,
with a record of 8-2-1.
And a favorable schedule -- all six remaining matches are against Eastern Conference teams, four of their final six games are at home and their final two games are
against Philadelphia and Chicago, the two worst teams in MLS -- gives the Red Bulls a strong shot of winning the Supporters' Shield.
What can't be argued is that no team has gotten more
out of its players than the Red Bulls, who went from having the third highest payroll in MLS to having the lowest following the exits of Thierry Henry
and Tim Cahill
, which allowed them to shed $8 million off its payroll.
Few gave the Red Bulls a chance to repeat their 2015 Western Conference runner-up
finish after the departure of Henry and Cahill and a traumatic offseason that saw popular head coach Mike Petke
dumped in favor of Jesse Marsch
The transition reached a head in mid-January with a town hall gone mad
which frustrated Red Bulls fans lashed out at general manager Marc de Grandpre
, new sporting director Ali Curtis
Marsch. Few left the meeting believing Curtis when he talked about "performance" and "science" and "analytics" or convinced when Marsch talked about "playing fast."
Petke and the former
technical staff didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare for Curtis and Marsch -- after all, the Red Bulls are in line to win their second Supporters' Shield in three years -- but whether by luck or
design, just about every move the Red Bulls have made has paid off spectacularly as they are winning with a starting lineup collectively earning significantly less than either Henry or Cahill made in
2014. 2015 NY Red Bulls Regular XI: PLAYER (YEAR), GUAR. COMPENSATION
$151,375 Connor Lade
(2012), $64,891 Matt Miazga
(2013), $74,500 Damien Perrinelle
(2014), $132,000 Kemar Lawrence
(2015), $60,000 Dax McCarty
(2015), $207,5000 Lloyd Sam
(2012), $240,000 Sacha
(2015), $537,500 Mike Grella
(2015), $60,000 Bradley Wright-Phillips
Year=year joined Red Bulls.
The Red Bulls returned a spine of Luis Robles
in goal, Matt Miazga
at center back, Dax McCarty
as the holding midfielder and Bradley
up front that has been excellent all season.
Robles is prone to allowing the occasional bad goal, but his double save in Sunday's game at Portland
will be one of the candidates for save of the
year. Miazga, in just his first full season as a starter, may be the best U.S. center back prospect MLS has ever produced. McCarty, the captain, may be the best holding midfielder this season.
Wright-Phillips won't match his record-tying total of 27 goals in 2014, but he has firmly put to rest any doubts about what kind of season he'd have without Henry setting him up. His 14 goals and
seven assists total 21 goals he's been involved in, sixth best in MLS this season.
New York pulled off the trade of the season, acquiring Felipe
and the allocation ranking that allowed them to beat out the LA Galaxy for Sacha Kljestan
in a trade with Montreal. The Red Bulls made the Homegrown signing of
the season in Sean Davis
out of Duke. He started in place of the suspended McCarty at Portland and played, Marsch said, like a five-year vet. They engineered
the bargain-basement transfer of the season, acquiring Kemar Lawrence
a week into the season from Harbour View. The young Jamaican, making only $60,000, has
emerged as arguably the best left back in MLS.
And to top it off, the Red Bulls have the reclamation project of the season in Mike Grella
signed on the minimum senior salary of $60,000 seven years after spurning MLS out of Duke for a career in the soccer wilderness with stints at six English lower-division clubs, Viborg in Denmark and
the NASL Carolina RailHawks. All Grella has done is step into Henry's starting job and score seven goals -- several of the highlight-reel variety -- and add seven assists. During the Red Bulls'
current 8-2-1 run, he's had a goal or assist in eight of the 11 matches. Sunday was the first game he has not started since April as he has played so well that it's been impossible for the Red Bulls'
summer signings -- former England international Shaun Wright-Phillips
, Bradley's brother, or Argentine Designated Player Gonzalo Veron
-- to displace him in the starting lineup.
That's not to say Shaun Wright-Phillips and Veron have not warranted an opportunity. They both made their first MLS
starts on Sunday at Portland and came in for praise from Marsch. Indeed, the Timbers' win may have been the best of a bunch of very good Red Bull performances this season. They had played midweek --
and lost -- at New England and had to travel cross-country to Portland. And even if the Timbers are in a funk, it's never easy to play at Providence Park.
"We're deep and we're young,"
said Marsch. "We have a bunch of guys who can recover quickly, who can cover a lot of ground, who can make the game fast and then there is some talent on the field too. That's for sure. Now we're able
to create a pace of game and then give our guys time and space you can see some of the things they can do. Certainly, I thought Shaun Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo in the first half really made it hard
on their defense and were showing up all over the place."
That ability to take the game to opposing teams on the road has been a hallmark of the Red Bulls, and that's why they will be so
dangerous in the playoffs. Being the first MLS to clinch a playoff berth is a reward for all the team has done, but it is only a first step.
"It's significant," added Marsch, "in the
sense that we're being rewarded for continuing to believe in ourselves and push really hard, but it's not really the end goal. It's a big step because to get to the playoffs this early in the season
says a lot about our team and about the season we've had but we're not stopping. We're going to make sure that we're all focused on the end goal."