The nature of sports since the beginning of time is that teams and players move on from one year to the next. Players come and they go and life goes on for teams. The games are still played and results continue to be expected.
But when a team has moved on from two of the most important, productive, heart-and-soul players the franchise has ever seen, there are difficult questions that must be answered.
What were the Red Bulls going to look like in Sunday’s 2020 season opener on a sunny but bone-chilling afternoon at Red Bull Arena, without Luis Robles guarding the net and Bradley Wright-Phillips prowling in front of the opposing goalkeeper with his sniper-like goal-scoring instincts?
For many Red Bulls supporters, those were uncomfortable questions to ponder and they’ll continue to be even after Sunday’s 3-2 win over FC Cincinnati.
All Robles did in his eight seasons for the Red Bulls was deliver an MLS-record 183 consecutive starts from 2012-18 and compile a career 114-71-53 won-loss record.
Wright-Phillips? He scored 108 goals in 195 games with the Red Bulls, winning the Golden Boot as the top MLS goal-scorer in 2014 and 2016.
So, you can understand the angst of Red Bulls supporters with those two pillars no longer a part of the team — Robles now the captain of Inter Miami FC and Wright-Phillips a member of LAFC.
Yes, the new-look, younger Red Bulls are 1-0 and feeling good about themselves after Sunday’s win — albeit against the worst team in MLS in 2019 with a minus-44 goal differential. And they should feel good. A win, after all, is a win — even if they looked as sloppy and disconnected for much of the second half as their bottom-feeder counterparts.
“On the outside, I can definitely understand skepticism,” newly minted Red Bulls captain Sean Davis said after the match, referring to the roster changeover and dependency on youth instead of star power.
“Those two guys were club legends, so whenever club legends are let go or move on to new ventures, there is question from the fans,” veteran defender Tim Parker said. “But what we’ve done here [Sunday] and what we did in preseason, they should believe in the group that we have here.”
This is not to rain on the Red Bulls’ parade, because there were, indeed, significant positives that came out of the victory — namely the performances of midfielder Florian Valot and defender Kyle Duncan.
Valot delivered two assists in his first MLS appearance since he tore the ACL in his right knee — that injury coming after he’d just returned from tearing his left ACL in 2018.
“Out of all the guys, I’m so happy for Flo,” Davis said. “He deserves this moment.”
Duncan, a 22-year-old New York City native, scored his second career MLS goal, a tally that gave the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead in the 16th minute it would never relinquish. He, too, added two assists and was named “Man of the Match.” Not a bad start for a player who bounced between the big club and the RBNY II last season because of inconsistency.
Kaku and Daniel Royer also scored, and Danish goalkeeper David Jensen won in his first match with the team — an odd look for the Red Bulls without Robles in net.
“There’s things you know and things you don’t know,” coach Chris Armas said when asked about the drastic roster turnover. “What I knew for sure is this team is hard to play against.”
On this day, against one of the inferior teams in the league, yes.
Whether that continues is a question that will hover of over the heads of the Red Bulls brass that chose not to replace stars with stars this past offseason, instead betting on their system as a plug-and-play operation.