By Lenn Robbins
Unfortunately, the MLS has taken a page out of the Baltimore Colts managerial playbook. And most unfortunately, the team that gutted its fan base is your New York Red Bulls.
The Red Bulls aren’t moving for now but you could lay worse money than betting it’s just a matter of time before they relocate. In the meantime, the Red Bulls have opted to strip away the face of the franchise.
In a vague Thursday email to season ticket holders entitled, “Roster Changes Announced,” the Red Bulls announced they had picked up the options of 10 players and declined options on six others. Ho-hum.
Just when you were about to click on your favorite Black Friday sale, the second paragraph stated that team had declined the option on goalkeeper Luis Robles.
No goalie in the MLS was better at what he does and had a more profound connection with his franchise’s fan base than Robles. He is the Red Bulls career leader in every goaltending stat but his true legacy was his endurance.
Robles owns the MLS’ Ironman streak having played in 183 consecutive games. He was the league’s, and the Red Bull’s, Lou Gehrig.
Now he’s gone from the Garden State. Gone, less than two and one-half years after signing a multi-year extension. Gone after leading the Red Bulls to the only three Supporters’ Shields in franchise history, gone after earning MLS Goalie of the Year in 2015.
The captain, yes, Robles has worn the armband the last two seasons, is gone.
Gone, too, is Bradley Wright-Phillips, who until this season was the offensive face of the franchise, a bull of a scoring forward who combined brute strength and deft touch in the box.
The Red Bulls didn’t want this news to make headlines. The email showed up with no information other than that vague subject line and a split-screen photo with Wright-Phillips on the left, Robles on the right. Above the two players were the words, “Thank You Bradley and Luis.” Below the photo, in much smaller type, were the words, “Read More.”
Clicking on “Read More,” led you to the vanilla, generic first graph, followed by the explosive second graph announcing the end of the Robles Era, and later, the news that Wright-Phillips was gone. That was in the sixth paragraph.
Fans of Where’s Waldo would be impressed.
The legion of dwindling Red Bulls fans won’t be impressed by this latest gut punch. Despite having a legit soccer stadium in the hotbed of New Jersey soccer, the Red Bulls haven’t been able to build their base.
Red Bull Arena seats 25,000. Despite having the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2018, attendance dipped 7.1 percent in 2019 to 17,281. By April, management began blocking off entire sections of the upper deck with tarp.
Now, Red Bulls fans, no less the casual soccer fan looking for a match, have to question supporting the team in Harrison, N.J., the one that jettisons key players in a Thursday Afternoon Massacre.
Is Robles, 35, the same goalie he was in 2015? Maybe, maybe not.
He was 13-14-16 with a GAA of 1.52 in 2019. His career stats are 114-71-53 with a 1.29 GAA. The Red Bulls were significantly worse in 2019 than 2018 so making the popular goalie a scapegoat seems ill-advised.
BWP, 34, is a different story. It was painful to watch the oft-injured star hobble across the pitch. He played 24 games, scoring just two goals, his lowest total since 2013, his first season with the Red Bulls when he played just seven games.
We can debate if Father Time has caught up with both players, but that’s like taking a car with transmission trouble to a mechanic and hearing him suggest new tires.
Management has thrown the Red Bulls on the scrapheap. They were hoping you wouldn’t notice.