In his first week at the helm of the New York Red Bulls, recently promoted interim head coach Troy Lesesne managed to elevate the once-sunken spirits of the club with consecutive wins against arch nemesis D.C. United and crosstown foe New York City FC. Lesesne and the Red Bulls were victorious last Tuesday in their Round of 32 U.S. Open Cup tie at MSU Soccer Park against D.C. by a score of 1-0 before replicating that scoreline on Saturday at Red Bull Arena against NYCFC, picking up their second win of the 2023 MLS season.
Bronx native Omir Fernandez found the back of the net in both contests, improving his goalscoring record against NYCFC to three in his last six appearances, scoring against the Cityzens in each of the last three seasons. This one, however, stands above the rest as it was not only a spectacular strike in the New York Derby, but a crucial tally to right the ship on what has been a dreadful first dozen games in MLS. The crowd of roughly 23,000 at Red Bull Arena was sent into a frenzy for the first time since March 18, New York’s last previous MLS win.
After dismissing Gerhard Struber from the club last Monday, the Red Bulls made it clear that not only was their league form not good enough, but there would be changes within the team’s culture, personality and, in some phases, tactics. These changes, while only a small sample size, can be seen in their last two matches, with the players looking more comfortable and poised in possession than they had in a long time while also not sacrificing the pressing system that Red Bulls teams have become accustomed to across the word.
After Saturday’s match, midfielder Daniel Edelman reflected as much, stating: “I think there’s definitely been a sense of refresh within the team. Troy’s been sort of praising some added creativity and freedom on the ball. … I think on the ball we showed tonight our control and clarity in possession a few times. Something that is not totally about the Red Bull Football and the philosophy but something that we’re looking to add. We can clearly have the talent on the team to hold the ball more and break teams down with a purpose, not just possess to possess, but possession with a purpose.”
Lesesne’s tactical approach was not the only bright spot that players had highlighted, as midfielder Peter Stroud spoke of the culture in the locker room.
“He was the third assistant, and he was kind of the guy a lot of guys could lean on during their individual situations in the season and now he’s the head coach,” Stroud said. “He has so many strong relationships with every single player. … We’re all, I think you can see, playing for him and we’re going to continue to play for him and get some results.”
Lesesne echoed a similar sentiment about the club’s culture following the victory against NYCFC.
“When you play in a derby like this, you get a real sense of what it means to this club even more,” Lesesne said. “I also have the academy schedule as well and our 15s played New York City this past weekend. … I can see what it meant to them in that moment. This is what you want to try to develop in a club like this, it’s special from our academy all the way to our second team, ultimately to this atmosphere tonight. Not many clubs really have that connection. I want to try to maximize every single group that we have in our club and bring it all together.”
Lesesne’s challenges were not just limited to digging New York out of the Eastern Conference’s basement and facing two rivals out of the gate, but his tasks were made harder by the constantly growing list of unavailable Red Bulls players. Among th4 injured unavailable players are the club’s 2022 leading scorer Lewis Morgan, designated player attacking midfielder Luquinhas, central midfielder Frankie Amaya, fullback Kyle Duncan, forward Serge Ngoma, midfielder Steven Sserwadda and defender Matt Nocita. Joining the spectators’ list for New York’s next match away at BMO Field against Toronto F.C. on Wednesday will be midfielder Daniel Edelman, who was called up to play for the United States U20 team at this week’s World Cup in Indonesia, along with midfielder Cristian Casseres Jr., defender Andres Reyes and captain Sean Nealis, all of whom accumulated their fifth yellow cards of the season against NYC.
Also sidelined has been DP striker Dante Vanzeir, who has not been featured since receiving a six-match suspension for using a racial slur against San Jose Earthquakes on April 8, but, unlike Reyes, Casseres and Nealis, he won’t be suspended for Wednesday’s match. As has been well-chronicled, the club’s response to the Vanzeir incident resulted in members of New York’s official supporters’ groups walking out of the South Ward upon kickoff of the Red Bulls’ following match against the Houston Dynamo. Just under a month later, the South Ward and most of Red Bull Arena was full of passionate fans cheering their team on to a Hudson River Derby victory.
The performances may not have been perfect, but they show what the Red Bulls are capable of with new ideas and newfound confidence. As injured players and Vanzeir make their way back to the lineup, it seems that there is a growing belief that with a full-strength squad with this character and quality, the New York Red Bulls could do some damage in MLS in 2023. And while fans won’t soon forget the issue regarding Vanzeir with his return to the team approaching, the good vibes in Red Bull nation can be a sign of better things to come.