After the Arsenal legend's retirement and a controversial managerial change, Jesse Marsch's side are proving the preseason doubters wrong.
With the 2015 MLS campaign now seven weeks old, just one of the league’s 20 teams remains undefeated.
Three wins and two draws have fired the New York Red Bulls to the top of the Eastern Conference and, much to management’s relief, helped quieten some of the commotion surrounding their eventful offseason.
The club were faced with a daunting rebuild following November’s Eastern Conference Championship defeat to the New England Revolution, due star skipper Thierry Henry’s retirement and fellow Designated Player Tim Cahill’s departure, but it was new general manager Ali Curtis’ shock decision just two weeks after his arrival to fire head coach Mike Petke which instead became the major talking point of the winter.
Having led his hometown club to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield – their first-ever major piece of silverware – and within a goal of the 2014 MLS Cup final, Petke’s sacking was met with widespread bewildered around the league, while Red Bulls supporters reacted with sheer outrage.
Aside from his managerial success, the former centre-back remains the team’s all-time appearance leader, with 169 games across two spells, and his strengthened status of club legend after two fruitful seasons at the helm led to Curtis becoming public enemy number one.
The subsequent hiring of Jesse Marsch, whose previous head coaching experience was limited to one season with the Montreal Impact, did little to quell the anger and, when 300 season-ticket holders later gathered at an unprecedented town hall meeting in mid-January, tensions boiled over in dramatic fashion.
Unsurprisingly, Curtis was the main target of their frustration, as those in attendance subjected him to ridicule, obscenities and made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that they already wanted him gone.
Red Bull GmbH, who purchased the team formerly known as the Metrostars in March 2006, did not escape criticism either, as supporters voiced their displeasure with the company’s leadership in the public sphere, renting a Petke-backing billboard and getting #RedBullOut to the top of Twitter’s trend list.
Needless to say, the relationship with the fan base and front office was at an all-time low heading into the new campaign, but prospects on the pitch also looked far from promising.
Ex-Leeds United man Mike Grella proved the only striker brought in to replace the departed Henry and, though Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips was coming off a league record-equalling 27-goal campaign, few expected the Englishman to repeat 2014’s heroics.
A trade with the Montreal Impact which netted midfielder Felipe Martins and the top allocation spot, used to acquire Sacha Kljestan, was also greeted with mixed reaction after costing starters Eric Alexander and Ambroise Oyongo, while a patchwork defence looked like one of the league’s weakest on paper.
With all the upheaval, coach Marsch seemed destined for a difficult debut season in New York, as many predicted the team to miss out on the play-offs for the first time since 2009 – but five games gone and people are already revising their expectations.
Now the in-form team in MLS, the Red Bulls are not just getting results but also playing an attractive, high-tempo brand of football, with the whole side clicking together as a unit in their new manager’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
In his bid to defy the sceptics, Wright-Phillips is stepping up as the main man in the post-Henry era, proving himself more than just a poacher by adding a creative dimension to his game, while compatriot Lloyd Sam has been just as integral to their hot start, looking like an MVP-contender with three goals and an assist from the right wing.
The other main holdovers from Petke’s reign have shown little sign of unrest amid the off-field disorder either, with newly-appointed captain Dax McCarty once again a formidable two-way force in the middle of the park, and goalkeeper Luis Robles his usual reliable-self in between the posts.
It’s not just the old guard who have impressed over the first five games, though, but also the new arrivals.
Damien Perrinelle’s signing received little fanfare but the Frenchman has so far been a rock at centre-back, while the Montreal trade is starting to look like a shrewd piece of business due to the fine form of Felipe and Kljestan, as well as Oyongo’s bizarre contract dispute which has since seen him go AWOL.
Even Grella, who was mulling retirement before joining the Red Bulls as a preseason trialist, has made his impact felt, bagging two goals in four appearances from Henry’s old spot on the left flank.
Whether Petke could have produced similar results is open for debate but, regardless, it’s now becoming increasingly clear that fans will find it hard to continue slating Curtis if Marsch’s side can keep up their current form over the coming weeks and months.
It’s still very early days, of course, but things certainly look promising and, with Wright-Phillips currently the only DP on their roster, there is even room to strengthen their hopes for a first-ever MLS Cup title in the summer with two big-name additions.
For now, though, the Red Bulls are proving they are more than capable of excelling without any star attractions and, with reigning league champions LA Galaxy visiting on Sunday night, they will have a prime chance to further showcase their cup credentials.