Major League Soccer’s 19-team league season ends in a one-month, winner-takes-all playoff competition designed to generate a crazy amount of fun in a short period of time, but not necessarily to hand the cup to the team that, by any European standard, is truly the best in the land. In 2010, the un-fancied Colorado Rapids rose from sixth seed to beat FC Dallas, the most successful regular-season team, in the MLS Cup final. Real Salt Lake had done something similar the year before, and, even further back, teams like the New England Revolution had prided themselves on season-defying mid-October bursts that, almost inevitably, ended in cup-final appearances
These stories don’t illustrate the beauty of underdog successes. Contrary to popular belief, underdog successes are never “good for the game,” unless you think that stripmining the game’s biggest stars from the game’s biggest showcase is positive and exciting and worth dancing in front of the TV about. Rather, these stories reveal the inherent randomness of the MLS playoffs: Since the competition admits nine of its 19 teams into the post-season, there’s always a chance that one of the lesser lights will put together a run and knock out a more established force.
The 2012 MLS Cup final is still about a week and a half away, but one team we know won’t be playing in it is the San Jose Earthquakes, whose league-topping regular-season performances counted for nothing in the Western Conference semi-finals. But arguably the most shocking casualty of this year’s playoffs is the New York Red Bulls – not shocking in the sense that no one expected New York to be eliminated, but shocking in the holy-shit-they-really-screwed-up sense, where you’ve got your jaw hanging open even before the final whistle sounds, and then two days and a lot of internal therapy later your jaw’s still hanging open (and, at this point, people are starting to stare) because it was just that mesmerizingly gruesome.
The New York Red Bulls’ two-legged Eastern Conference playoff semi-final against DC United was just about the most confusing series in Major League Soccer history. Hurricane Sandy forced organizers to change the first leg’s venue. Then another storm postponed the second leg. Then much-maligned former US international striker Kenny Cooper scored a penalty but missed the retake early in the second half of the second leg. Then the referee sent off Red Bulls Designated Player Rafa Marquez. Then a DC rookie scored an unlikely winning goal. Then Roy Miller missed a last-minute free kick that he probably should have left to Thierry Henry. And then, finally, New York coach Hans Backe resigned in the aftermath of another embarrassing playoff defeat.
In the last six years, the New York Red Bulls have a) adopted the name of an energy drink in order to bring in sponsorship money; b) signed arguably the best striker in Premier League history from arguably the best team in football history; c) signed a Champions League-winning center back; d) made some majorly bombastic claims about things like “brands” and “premier soccer clubs;” e) built one of the most state-of-the-art football stadiums in North America; and f) hired a smart-sounding Scandinavian coach who’s had about as much budget freedom as any coach in MLS history. And yet, three years after Red Bull Arena opened, two and a half years after Thierry Henry first put pen to paper, the New York Red Bulls are exactly where they started: on the wrong end of another playoff series.
In theory, the Red Bulls are fully equipped to become Major League Soccer’s first legitimate superclub. Big time players like Thierry Henry get to live in New York, a city whose large Hispanic community represents a veritable goldmine of potential fans and whose older generations remember Pele’s Cosmos, which won a handful of championships in the now-defunct NASL, with enough fondness to maybe, once in a while, go out and see what this new Red Bulls soccer team is up to, and maybe buy a jersey, too. The Eastern Conference is, on the whole, weaker than the Western Conference, so New York should never have trouble qualifying for the post-season; and MLS’s evolving salary and squad rules are starting to come to terms with what teams of New York’s stature are trying to achieve.
The problem, however, is that in America’s first stable professional football league, the Red Bulls are anything but. In 2011, Red Bulls general manager Erik Soler announced the signing of former-MVP and undisputed MLS legend Dwayne De Rosario, only to trade him to DC United a couple of months later. De-Ro is more than a little bitter about the second transaction, which was sprung on him without warning, or so he claims, during some random training session. (De Rosario has since gone on to lead the league in goals and win another MVP title.)
Earlier this season, the Red Bulls exchanged fan favorite Dane Richards for Vancouver’s on-and-off French striker Sebastian Le Toux. Le Toux scored a grand total of one goal during his six-month Red Bulls tenure, and he won’t be back next year. Hans Backe spent large portions of the regular season trying to accommodate Henry, Cooper, Le Toux and Tim Cahill, another expensive DP, in one lineup without forfeiting the defensive solidity that any sane fan knew the Red Bulls never had to begin with.
Ultimately, a club with serious footballing aspirations can’t afford a scattergun transfer policy that at best alienates a few tried-and-trusted MLSers and at worst jeopardizes the very playoff ambitions that Thierry Henry, the half-empty stadium, and all the money were supposed to promote. All anyone has to do to win the MLS Cup is put together a couple of weeks of consistent football, but, at the moment, the Red Bulls look incapable of stringing together so much as a consistent 90 minutes.
Sometimes, when a club veers out of control, you’ve just got to step back and laugh. Major League Soccer is often accused of being bland and uninteresting – which it is, especially in contrast to the all-action Premier League, or just one day of European transfer gossip. MLS is filled with veteran coaches (Bruce Arena, Dominic Kinnear, Sigi Schmid) whose teams always challenge in the post-season but very rarely produce anything in the way of total, howl-a-minute comedy. (To be fair, Arena’s LA Galaxy was on the brink of collapse earlier in the season, but now they’re cruising through the playoffs, which just reinforces the whole veterans-are-boringly- predictable argument.) The New York Red Bulls at least provide comic relief.
The Red Bulls are interesting like an alcohol-fuelled celebrity car wreck is interesting. They’re fundamentally bizarre, and — you know what? — bless them for it. No matter what the pundits say, fans don’t really enjoy watching workmanlike football outfits churn out success after success. People feel a perverse fascination for the Red Bulls, which isn’t the same as a genuine, we-love-their-football, Barca-style fascination, of course, but which is better than no fascination at all.
In the coming weeks, the Red Bulls will hire a new coach to complement their new “head of global soccer,” Gerard Houllier. The pair will, supposedly, “steer the club in the right direction,” or “get the team to play better,” or something like that – after a certain point, you just start to zone this stuff out. As MLS fans – and as nasty, vindictive human beings – let’s hope they fail miserably.
 For the record, the Red Bulls have routinely failed – despite the world-class striker, the Champions League-winning center back, and the majorly bombastic boardroom objectives – to put bottoms in the state-of-the-art stadium’s seats.
 Let’s face it: since teenage wunderkinds aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to get their hands on official MLS boxers, a prime location is pretty much the most valuable asset any American team can have.