HARRISON, N.J. - This week, I have a request to ask of you. I'm well aware that it may come across as a bit unconventional. Indeed, it's probably going to be rather difficult for quite a few readers - especially those who sat through the Union's dispiriting loss to FC Dallas on Saturday at PPL Park.
I'm asking you to have sympathy for the New York Red Bulls.
Believe me, I know how hard that is for many of you. Just hear me out for a moment.
Last year, after so many trials, tribulations and flat-out mistakes, the Red Bulls finally got to a point where it felt like they were doing things right. After claiming their first ever trophy by winning the Supporters' Shield in 2013, New York made another piece of history in 2014 by finally knocking arch-rival D.C. United out of the playoffs for the first time ever.
The ensuing Eastern Conference final matchup with the New England Revolution packed Red Bull Arena to the walls, and delievered the kind of atmosphere that everyone around Major League Soccer had waited for almost the club's entire existence to witness.
But that was as good as it got. Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill leftt, Mike Petke was controversially fired, and New York City FC seized the media and cultural spotlight.
A Red Bulls club that had finally found stability was once again torn asunder by turmoil, especially because of Petke's dismissal by newly-hired sporting director Ali Curtis. The fans' cult hero was gone, and the era of big spending on stars seemed to end just as City was trumpeting the arrival of David Villa in the five boroughs.
For all of City's advantages in largesse and location, though, the Red Bulls have two things that their new neighbors lack: a real soccer stadium and a real soccer history.
That history has a lot more bad than good in it, for sure. Still, even the most ardent New York-hater can likely respect the Red Bulls' embrace of the MetroStars legacy.
Last year, the old black-and-red striped motif with a white star in the middle quietly made an appearance on banners in Red Bull Arena's rafters. This year, season ticket holders got a scarf with both the Red Bulls and MetroStars logos on them. One side had red-and-white stripes for the Red Bulls, the other red-and-black stripes for the MetroStars.
The move to embrace the team's past began under Petke, a cult hero as a player in the Giants Stadium era. As a manager at Red Bull Arena, New York broke the Curse of Caricola under his watch. Petke's tears as he watched the South Ward celebrate winning the Supporters' Shield were as authentic as emotion gets in MLS.
He's gone now, but he certainly isn't forgoten. As has been proven many times over the club's 20-year history, Red Bulls/MetroStars fans do not give up grudges easily. The plans for a protest by some Red Bulls supporters were no secret, though they were tempered after Petke asked for any protest to not come at the expense of backing the players.
In the end, those fans who felt they had a point to make kept their point narrow:
The protest lasted 12 minutes, in honor of Petke's jersey number.
All the while, Petke's replacement stood on the sidelines and dealt with matters in the present - specifically, a home opener against the club's perennial arch-rival.
Jesse Marsch is a smart and promising manager with deep roots in the Garden State. Yes, Marsch's previous head coaching tenure didn't end well, as he left the Montréal Impact after a falling-out with the team's front office. But after making a respectable team out of an expansion roster, the Princeton product and Bob Bradley protégé emerged without much damage to his reputation.
It was not easy for Red Bulls fans to strike the right tone in criticizing the dismisal of Petke without throwing Marsch under the bus. You could make a decent case that for a while, those efforts failed. But Marsch handled the offseason with dignity, and he handled postgame questions about the protest Sunday in the same way.
"My goal is the team, and if the team is right, then people will like the team, and then they'll like me in turn," Marsch said. "I'm not trying to win a popularity contest - I'm trying to coach a football team to be the best in the league. That's my sole mission. When we get there, I think that a lot of people will appreciate the work that's been done."
So far, Marsch's club has proved quite a bit. The Red Bulls gave a good performance in his first game in charge, securing a 1-1 draw at Sporting Kansas City. Then came a bye week, which made Sunday's game feel like a second first impression instead of the season's second game.
The last time the spotlight shone on Red Bull Arena was the Sunday before Thanksgiving of last year, and that electrifying playoff game against New England. This time, the crowd wasn't as big, or as loud. The only similarity between then and now was the cold air.
But not all the differences between then and now were for the worse. Indeed, one was very much for the better: the Red Bulls won, 2-0. Bradley Wright-Phillips scored first and Lloyd Sam second, both with fine finishes. New York dominated the game for long stretches, registering 56 percent of possession and a 7-5 advantage in shots on goal.
In the wake of the departures of Henry and Cahill, expectations for the Red Bulls this year were similar to the expectations for Marsch's roster: good but not great.
Last weekend, a few rivers and train rides from here, New York City won its home opener by the same scoreline over New England. The Red Bulls' win over D.C. didn't match that contest for sizzle, but it brought plenty of steak.
(And it was a far more entertaining affair than the other game I watched in person this weekend, if I may say so.)
In the long run, it was just one game. But Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, one of the team's veterans, knew the win came with extra significance.
"On a couple of different levels, it's sweet," he said. "We just wanted to remind everyone that this is still about soccer - the guys have worked really hard, and there has also been a lot written about who's not here. And of course, there is more than just a couple of guys who made this team the last few years, so we wanted to show that there are some guys still here who are capable of getting results, and some new guys who are willing to die for the cause as well."
For a coach of Marsch's composure and style, a steak win in his Red Bull Arena debut was just fine. It was clear from his emotions on the sideline - including the smile he cracked as he left the field – that he's happy being a coach in MLS again.
I asked Marsch in his postgame press conference about how much he has enjoyed his return to the sidelines.
"It's been awesome," he answered. "It's so funny - there's just different things that float around about what this club is about, and I'll tell you, since I've been here, it's been nothing but first class... I have resources here, I have good people here, I have great players, and I think the sky is the limit."
Whatever the Red Bulls' limit under Marsch ultimately ends up being, Sunday's win made it clear that the team isn't done being reckoned with as a force in the Eastern Conference.
Here are the... well, I was going to say highlights from the weekend's action around MLS, but since there were three scoreless draws Saturday, that's stretching it a bit. But you know the deal by now.
Vancouver Whitecaps: Octavio Rivero 90 +5'
Los Angeles Galaxy: Robbie Keane 3'
Houston Dynamo: Nathan Sturgis 11'
New York Red Bulls: Bradley Wright-Phillips 25', Lloyd Sam 71'
San Jose Earthquakes: Fatai Alashe 5', Ty Harden 21'
Chicago Fire: Harrison Shipp 29'