HANOVER, N.J. (AP) _ The New York Red Bulls might be one of the biggest surprises in the opening weeks of the Major League Soccer season.
Despite losing Thierry Henry to retirement, parting ways with Tim Cahill, revamping the roster and firing popular coach Mike Petke, the Red Bulls have thrived under new coach Jesse Marsch.
With two wins and a tie in three games, the Red Bulls are in first place in the Eastern Conference with seven points. Only FC Dallas and Vancouver have more points and they have each played four games.
The start is the Red Bulls’ best since 2007, when they also had seven points in their only full season under coach Bruce Arena. Even when they won the Supporters’ Shield two seasons ago, they didn’t get seven points until their fifth game.
“I described it as we are ahead of schedule, so I don’t think we are surprised,” says Marsch. “You could tell in the preseason that something was happening and so we all were all feeling it, and it was showing itself on the field. I think we were hopeful that we would be able to command games like we have, but we weren’t sure.”
The key to the Red Bulls’ success has been pressuring opponents. They attack the ball and don’t give the opposition time to set up. It’s taken the pressure off the defense and had goalkeeper Luis Robles facing fewer shots.
On the other end, the pressure has forced turnovers and led to three of the Red Bulls’ five goals with golden boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips and Lloyd Sam scoring two apiece.
“I think putting pressure on the ball is a big part of it because you take away players’ options,” defender Chris Duvall said. “Whether it’s the front guys putting the pressure on or the midfielders, it takes a lot of pressure off our back line.”
The pressure actually starts in practice, where the team tries to match the speed of a game.
“The last two years we have had slow starts, but I’m not surprised by this season,” said Robles, who has allowed two goals. “With high pressure on their end we are catching a lot of teams by surprise out of the gate. I think it will change as the season goes on because teams will start to game plan for us. What is not going to change for us is the same sort of commitment to putting teams under fire.”
This is also a team that is playing with a chip on its shoulder. With the loss of Henry and Cahill and the coaching change, there were many who felt the Red Bulls would struggle this season despite having Wright-Phillips back after a 27-goal season and adding former national team midfielder Sacha Kljestan.
Robles said being overlooked has helped the team bond.
“Most of my confidence isn’t what we are putting out on the field, it’s in the locker room,” he said. “We have a great group of guys, guys who are committed to the cause. That gives us a competitive edge going forward, knowing there are going to be difficult stretches in the season.
There are some who also question the Red Bulls start, noting they beat D.C. United and Columbus when those teams were missing key players.
“Definitely we are off to a good start with seven points, let’s not discount that,” Kljestan said. “But we talked and we do have a lot of work to do.”
Robles believes this is a team that can accomplish a lot in a bid to win its first MLS Cup.
“It would be ignorant of us to just look at this small sample size and say: ‘Of yeah this is what we can expect,’” he said. “A lot of things happen in 34 games but because I feel so good about the guys in the locker room I know that would not affect us.”