The New York Red Bulls shocked the American soccer community when they qualified for the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs on practically the final kick of the season, a 93rd minute JMi Tolkin penalty to give New York three points against Nashville SC on Major League Soccer’s Decision Day last Saturday, Oct. 21. It would mark New York’s fourteenth straight MLS Cup Playoff appearance, a new league record and the longest active playoff streak in American professional sports.
In their first match of the playoffs, the Eastern Conference Wildcard match between eighth place New York and ninth place Charlotte FC (who were making their MLS Cup Playoffs debut), the Metro ran rampant at Red Bull Arena, producing some of their best soccer all year long in a 5-2 victory. New York eliminated Charlotte on Wednesday night, advancing to the First Round of the playoffs where they will face Supporters Shield winners FC Cincinnati in a three-match, home-away-home series starting Sunday, Oct. 29.
Despite 2023 being among the worst seasons in New York Red Bulls history, the club has once again found a way to be part of MLS’s annual postseason tournament that decides its ultimate champion, a tournament that the Red Bulls have famously never won. For the vast majority of the season, just about everyone around the league considered the Red Bulls’ playoff reign to be at or near its end, as New York spent all but the final two minutes of the regular season below the playoff line. Naturally, this has invited criticism to MLS’s new playoff format, which sees as many as 18 teams qualifying for the playoffs with 16 progressing to the First Round, where teams will play three-match series for the first time since 2002 in efforts to increase AppleTV’s streaming revenue and ensuring that every team plays a match at home. New York’s unimpressive eleven wins, ten draws and thirteen losses may have been enough to reach the playoffs at eighth place in the Eastern Conference, but it’s still not enough for head coach Troy Lesesne. “This is not a distraction from a season that isn’t acceptable for our fans,” Lesesne said. “It’s not acceptable what’s happened this season — for that matter, the last four or five seasons — we need to do better as a club.”
However, if the current form of the New York Red Bulls is any indication of the direction they are heading in, then things are certainly looking up. In order to even reach the playoffs, New York needed to win four of their final five matches of the regular season, the first of which was a win on the road to their next opponent, FC Cincinnati, defeating them 2-1 at TQL Stadium just days after they had clinched the Supporters’ Shield. Not only that, but they seem to have finally started to address the issue of goalscoring, having found the back of the net sixteen times in their last six MLS matches compared to just fifteen goals in their previous fifteen matches. Their wildcard matchup against Charlotte was no different, with the Red Bulls scoring three goals in the first half for just the second time all season and the first time at home in over fourteen months, doing so in style. Elias Manoel bagged the first of his eventual hat trick just ten minutes into the contest, bringing down a Daniel Edelman ball from in behind the Charlotte defense before beating Kristijan Kahlina on a half-volley. Left back JMi Tolkin, playing in his 100th professional appearance, would continue his terrific run of attacking form, scoring a scorcher of a free kick to double New York’s lead in the 26th minute (his second free kick goal of the year) before assisting Manoel on his second of the half in the 37th.
New York’s performance would not be without blemishes, though, getting exposed in defense several times and forcing goalkeeper Carlos Coronel into a handful of big saves, two of which came in the first 45 minutes. Ultimately, Charlotte would come out flying to start the second half, with Kerwin Vargas scoring on a sensational bicycle kick from a free kick routine straight off the training ground. However, the second half would be about responding to adversity for the Red Bulls, scoring seven minutes later through Tom Barlow, who was able to redirect a JMi Tolkin cross for the Chatham, New Jersey native’s second assist of the match. It would end up a milestone night for Tolkin, who surpassed Tyler Adams for most assists by a homegrown New York Red Bulls player in a single season with ten.
Patrick Agyemang would come off the bench and bring another back for Charlotte with a great individual effort in the 64th minute that once again highlighted weaknesses among New York’s largely unbothered defense. But still, with Charlotte gambling a little more riskily in the second half, the Red Bulls were able to slam the door shut in the 78th minute as Luquinhas sprung Elias Manoel in behind before the Brazilian striker could deposit his third goal of the match, the first hat trick in New York Red Bulls playoff history and just the sixth ever playoff hat trick in league history. It also added to Manoel’s sensational scoring record against Charlotte, bumping his total to six in just four matches against The Crown; as many as two thirds of Elias Manoel’s MLS goals have come against Charlotte FC. “I hope to score more goals, not only against Charlotte, so our team goes farther and farther in this competition,” Manoel said. “I’m really confident. Of course, even in some games, unfortunately I’m not scoring, but I’m helping the team with whatever they need in and helping everybody in the games.”
The Red Bulls will have their work cut out for them in the First Round against Cincinnati, an opponent with which they have an interesting history. Not only did they play three incredibly close matches on the season, with New York defeating the Orange and Blue in Cincinnati after falling to them twice at home, but Cincinnati’s wins were not entirely convincing with one coming by virtue of a 93rd minute Obinna Nwobodo winner and the other in penalties in the Round of 16 of the U.S. Open Cup. In fact, in the last nine meetings between these two clubs, the home team hasn’t won and has actually lost in their last four meetings, with the Red Bulls having never lost in Cincinnati in four away MLS matches. Not to mention, last year’s playoffs saw Cincy advance out of the first round at the Red Bulls’ expense, defeating them 2-1 in front of a spotty afternoon crowd at Red Bull Arena. Revenge, pride and a chance at hardware all remain on the line for the New York Red Bulls in 2023, and considering the season they’ve had, it’s astonishing that they’re still alive at this point. As unlikely as it may be right now, it would be remarkable if they could somehow find a way to keep it going.