Of the Major League Soccer teams that played in this spring's CONCACAF Champions League, the New York Red Bulls stand out as the glaring exception.
The tone for the Seattle Sounders' season was set in the round of 16 of that competition, when forward Jordan Morris tore his ACL at Santa Tecla. The Sounders are in last place in the Western Conference, with just eight points and five goals through nine matches. Toronto came closest to continental glory, falling to Chivas on penalties in the final, but has also paid a domestic price -- TFC sits in 10th place out of 11 teams in the East.
The Red Bulls, though, have thrived where the others have swooned. Heading into this weekend's showdown at league-leading Atlanta United, New York is second in the East in points per match and fifth in the standings by virtue only of having played fewer games. It enters the weekend having won three straight, two of which were on the road.
Reasons for NYRB's comparative resilience are multiple, but all come back to the club's defining principle under coach Jesse Marsch: empowering young talent.
Whereas Seattle and TFC each leaned heavily on a handful of veterans, Marsch rotated his lineup throughout his team's run to the CONCACAF semifinals. And where the Sounders and Reds have rued their luck as their respective injury lists have ballooned, New York's younger, sprightlier legs were more equipped to handle the increased workload.
It is jarring just how drastically, and quickly, the Red Bulls have changed ideological direction. For so long, it was the team over-reliant on superstar vets, the club defined by guys like Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez. Ever since Marsch took over from popular former coach Mike Petke in January of 2015, he has marched the franchise steadily in the opposite direction.
Marsch describes his vision as not just building from the ground up out of the fertile soil of NYRB's well-respected youth academy, it's also about being proactive, and hungry, from the practice field to match day. His high-pressing system involves red shirts chasing down opponents deep inside their own half; at its best, like during the 4-0 rout of rival New York City FC earlier this month, his squad can appear almost ravenous in their pursuit of the ball.
"It's a philosophical style of play that is about being aggressive and making teams uncomfortable," Marsch told ESPN FC this week in a phone interview.
The coach has sometimes been ruthless in pursuit of that identity. Dax McCarty, who had been with the club since 2011 and long served as its captain, was traded to Chicago for allocation money 18 months ago. Former midfield partner and heir of the armband Sacha Kljestan followed him out the door this past offseason. The rationale was simple, if cold-blooded: Both players were on the wrong side of 30 -- or in McCarty's case, would be in a few months' time -- and the system prioritizes youth above all else.
The end result? "We told the players at the beginning of this preseason that this group was going to be able to play the way that we wanted more than any group that we've ever had," Marsch said.
After a protracted period of supporter discontent following the firing of Petke, a New Yorker by birth who also lined up for the club during his playing days, Marsch has sensed greater buy-in from the fans, too, as positive results have piled up. That so many guys have risen up directly from the academy -- the majority of them thus possessing local ties -- has also made this group easy to root for.
"[19-year-old midfielder] Tyler Adams is probably the biggest of those stories, but there are probably 20 of them, guys that are somehow from this community and now are contributing," Marsch said. "The fact that we have an identity that is true to our community and has a definite style of play is exciting for everybody to see."
All that remains is what Marsch describes as the "cherry on top," a trophy to help validate his grand designs. The Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield as regular-season champions in 2013 and 2015 but have still yet to ever lift MLS Cup or the U.S. Open Cup. Until then, skeptics will remain, and the comparison with the last two MLS champs will remain unflattering only in the most important and tangible of senses.