New York Red Bulls, formerly favorites and underachievers, now MLS's dangerous playoff underdog

New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, left, celebrates with midfielder Daniel Royer after scoring his goal against the Chicago Fire during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff game, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, in Bridgeview, Ill. (AP Photo)

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — The New York Red Bulls aren’t used to this. Certainly not used to being here, in a half-empty-at-kickoff Toyota Park in late October. And not used to being here, on the road in the opening round of the MLS Playoffs. But maybe that’s all for the better.

The Red Bulls are more familiar with high seeds, and byes, and expectations. With big-boy status. And with letdowns. They’ve finished with the most points in MLS’s Eastern Conference four times this decade, but only twice advanced past the conference semis. On Wednesday night, they adapted to their newly acquired underdog status just fine.

In its first opening-round road game since 2011, New York rode two early goals to a comfortable, professional, proficient 4-0 win over the Chicago Fire. And in an odd role reversal, it might be more equipped than any of the other 11 playoff sides to serve as MLS’s 2017 Cinderella.

“Our guys were fearless,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said postgame. “They were aggressive. They didn’t worry about if plays weren’t gonna go their way. Their was a confidence on the field. There’s a quiet calmness with this group that is palpable.”

Their Cinderella status, of course, is in part due to parity out west, and in part due to the potential Goliaths to New York’s David in the east. The Red Bulls will get Toronto FC, the best team in MLS history, in the semis. And in all likelihood, they won’t come out of two legs unscathed. But if Wednesday was any indication, the east’s 6-seed is hitting its stride at just the right time.

They also get to try something new for a change. “In the playoffs in my years here, we’ve always been the higher seed,” Marsch said. “We’ve always had to go on the road first [in the conference semifinal and final series]. Now we get to try it this way. You could make an argument that having the home game first sets the tone for the series.

“It’ll be an incredibly big challenge,” he admitted, “but one that I know we will be up for.”

The Red Bulls were aided by an injury-riddled and out-of-sync Fire team on Wednesday, too. Bradley Wright-Phillips punished some slack, stationary defending in the seventh minute to put the Red Bulls up 1-0:

Minutes later, they were 2-0 up with a goal emblematic of their strengths. Whiz kid wing-back Tyler Adams cut to the end line, and slid in a precise cross that was met by a timely Sacha Kljestan run:

“I feel like I talk about Tyler a lot these days,” Marsch said of his 18-year-old star. “We see him maturing, and growing up, and developing right before our eyes. … He dominated that wing, he covered ground, he was dangerous going forward, he won all his duels … fantastic.”

Marsch spoke of Adams’, and his team’s energy – energy Chicago never really matched. Aside from a few unfounded penalty shouts and a Nemanja Nikolic header, the hosts didn’t trouble their visitors. Luis Robles came up with one big save early in the second half, but the New York keeper didn’t have a very busy evening.

Chicago introduced Bastian Schweinsteiger with 25 minutes remaining, the German’s first appearance since an injury last month. But minutes after Schweinsteiger entered the fray, the Fire opened up. The Red Bulls had two breaks within five minutes, and they put the game away with the second:

Substitute Gonzalo Veron made it 4-0 late as a crowd of just 11,647 thinned out on a chilly evening. It was just about the worst way for playoff soccer to return to Chicago (Bridgeview) for the first time since 2012.

But for the Red Bulls, it was Exhibit 1A for a feeling that’s been trickling through the team as of late. “There is a confidence right now with the group,” Robles said. “It starts at the top, and it goes all the way to the end. The sort of effort that we put out today shows that confidence. And in the locker room, there’s an ease to the guys right now.”

Marsch notices it. So do other players. “We were just calm, and confident,” young midfielder Sean Davis said. “Not cocky, but there was a confidence among the group. We’ve been through a lot of difficult moments this year, we’ve played in knockout games away from home, in difficult places to play. So we had those experiences under our belt.”

When Davis mentioned knockout games, he was referring to New York’s run to the U.S. Open Cup final. Robles brought up that experience as well. “Because of the way that it ended,” he said, with a loss to Sporting Kansas City, “we feel like there’s unfinished business. But we’re not in a panic, because we’ve been through this before.”

Said Davis: “Throughout the week, we were calm. And we do have that chip on our shoulder. And that’s a dangerous combination for any team playing us. Toronto’s a very good team. But this group feels good.”

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.