HANOVER, N.J. — When the New York Red Bulls begin the chase for their elusive first MLS Cup Sunday, they will do so as the Supporters’ Shield champions for the third time in six years, but also as the MLS team to log the most miles this season.
While most teams were still in preseason, the Red Bulls were competing in the Concacaf Champions League with their first match against Olimpia on Feb. 22.
Should the Red Bulls make it to the MLS Cup final on Dec. 8, it would be their 11th month of competitive matches.
But can the Red Bulls continue their style of play — high pressing, high energy, an emphasis on winning duels and second balls — without running out of gas at the most important time of the season?
“For many reasons we think we could play for a few more months,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said after training on Tuesday. “We’ve managed the workloads the right way, we have a lot of different guys sharing minutes, we have the youngest team in the league. The body can do a lot more than it thinks because the mind controls that, we think.”
Indeed, 26 different players have earned at least one league start on a team that averages 24.1 years of age. Down the stretch of the regular season, everyday starters like Tyler Adams, Kemar Lawrence and Danny Royer were given additional time to rest and recover from relatively minor injuries.
And when the team was playing in multiple competitions — CCL early and the U.S. Open Cup midway through the season — there was always roster rotation.
“When you add it all up and the way we’re trying to manage things with Tony Jouaux, our strength and conditioning coach, we think we’re fresh in our minds and our bodies to make a real push to keep this going,” Armas said.
That hasn’t been the case in the past. A year ago, the Red Bulls fell to eventual champions Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference semifinals after crashing out against the Montreal Impact in the same round the year before.
“Toward the end of the season, and in the past couple of seasons, we’ve kind of died out a bit,” Adams said. “Not performance-wise, but fatigue set in and stuff like that.”
Although the Red Bulls identity remains the same this postseason, Adams said a strengthened defense — the best statistically in the league during the regular season — relieves some of the pressure felt by two-way players at points during games. He credits the addition of Tim Parker to the backline as the biggest reason.
“We can change our style of play in games now where we can become a bit more compact, but still put pressure on teams. I think that’s something we’ve added to our game that in the past we haven’t really had,” Adams said. “When you can absorb pressure a little bit more with the defense we have now, it makes us feel more comfortable in tough games, especially when you have to go on the road against tough opponents.”