MLS: How the Red Bulls and NYC FC turned their seasons around

Learn how NYC FC and the New York Red Bulls have turned their MLS seasons around.

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SiriusXM Editor
October 14, 2016

On one hand it isn’t surprising that the New York Red Bulls and NYC FC are tied for tops in the East. They have two of the most dynamic attackers in the league, in Sacha Kljestan and David Villa, respectively. They are led by brilliant coaches. They are not snakebitten like the high-spending Canadians up in Toronto. This, in the middle of October, makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, this makes no sense. The Red Bulls have only won twice on the road. The Pigeons have given up more goals than anyone else in the league. When a 4-7-2 Red Bulls team went up to the Bronx and beat NYC 7-0, there was uproaring schadenfreude rippling throughout the rest of the league.

Those other teams are, shall we say, laughing no longer.

Now, the two New York teams represent the best of MLS. They have supplemented those dynamic attackers with exciting youngsters. They have adapted unique styles to fit their strengths. There is not a whole lot of defense up in the tri-state area, but there is a whole lot of fun. All in all, MLS would prefer the latter.

The Red Bulls are used to this by now. They won the Supporters’ Shield last year and in 2012, after all, with plenty of playoff appearances between those trophies. But something happened between ’12 and now, In those ensuing years the Red Bulls transitioned from a “Designated Player-heavy sledgehammer” of a squad to something a bit more insidious. Talk about #squadgoals…

It has helped that Bradley Wright-Phillips has turned into more of a goal-scoring monster than anyone could have expected. He is 31 and still (co-) leading the league in goals. It is also great that Kljestan, after years in the American soccer wilderness, came back to its biggest market and shined.

Kljestan is a weird case. He was a rising star for the increasingly-derelict Chivas USA squad in the 2000s before moving to Belgium and having perhaps the greatest six-year run of any American abroad. He helpd a league champion club ascend to new heights, married a Victoria’s Secret model, and watched the soccer-playing nation of Belgium grow. Kljestan played with a very young Romelu Lukaku and against the likes of Alex Witsel and Christian Benteke. Belgian football was really good and very quick from 2010-2015, and Kljestan left it with thousands of Anderlecht fans chanting his name.

He never really fit into Bob Bradley’s USMNT sides at the time, leaving most American fans who couldn’t watch the Jupiler Pro League unimpressed by the tall attacker. But Kljestan has come back – took the mantle (and Designated Player spot) from Thierry Henry – and shined. He seems to have taught his new teammates everything he learned.

Youngsters like Alex Muyl and Mike Grella are some of the peskiest wingers in the league. Dax McCarty is basically the clean-cut Radja Nainggolan (who actually came up through Italian academies but you get my drift). This is certainly not the Belgian National Team, but they at least play like the Belgian National Team. In North America, that’s good enough.

New York City FC, similarly, seems to vibe off of their captain in David Villa. The old soccer horse of “talismanic forward” is tried. But in the barely-big-enough-for-baseball home of NYCFC, Villa’s care-waves seem to emanate out into the rest of the team. The dude runs and tries hard and scores and screams in the way very few high-priced imports have done in the MLS.

Then in the midfield, Andrea Pirlo and Tommy McNamara are sharing a pack of Marlboros and dropping inch-perfect balls into the forward line.

It is obviously not what Patrick Vieira expected in his first managing stint. You may remember his constant experimentation in the early-going, eventually leading to a 4-5-6 record in the beginning of June and the exile of great smiler and mediocre passer Mix Diskerud.

The result is not as pretty on a game-to-game basis but it has gotten results. They are the road warriors of the league, and their seven wins are more than any other team in the league. They are erratic at home, but that may be the price a consistent teams pays for playing in a weird little baseball stadium.

Both teams still have a couple games left to play, where they will try and get some separation on points. Neither are likely to catch the West-leading teams in Dallas or Colorado, but nabbing the #1 seed is likely the difference between facing Toronto FC in a home-and-home or one of the next several mediocre teams slogging their way above the red line.

It is not where anyone expected these sides in June, but here we are in October. Just how the league execs wanted it.

This post was composed by freelance writer and swell guy, Asher Kohn. Reach out to him and discuss all the soccer happenings from around the world on Twitter at:@AJKhn. Catch up with all of the latest soccer happenings on SiriusXM FC. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)