By Peter Schwartz
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Jesse Marsch knows what it's like to raise a championship trophy or two.
As a midfielder for the Chicago Fire back in 1998, Marsch experienced the jubilation of winning not only the MLS Cup but also the U.S. Open Cup. Since being named the head coach of the Red Bulls prior to the 2015 season, he has envisioned what it would be like for his players to have that same experience that he enjoyed almost two decades ago.
"The euphoria that results from that experience is unexplainable and it's almost untranslatable," Marsch said during an exclusive interview this week with WFAN.com. I do think about (Red Bulls Captain) Dax (McCarty) raising that trophy. I think about the reward that these players deserve for everything that they've put into this and I think this is a group that has major potential. So now it's our job to execute it."
Marsch has already gathered some hardware with the Red Bulls. Last season, his first with the franchise, he guided the club to the Supporters' Shield as MLS regular season. He also took home MLS Coach of the Year honors. The team fell short of its ultimate goal as it fell to the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference Finals, but New York looks ready to make another run.
With two games left in the regular season, the Red Bulls sit in a tie for first place in the Eastern Conference with NYCFC. Both teams have 51 points, but the Red Bulls have a huge tiebreaker edge due to goal differential (plus-14 as opposed to NYCFC's plus-4). The Red Bulls are currently on a franchise-best 14-game unbeaten streak and haven't lost since a 2-0 setback to NYCFC on July 3.
With the way they have been playing, Marsch believes this year's team is ready to do something special.
"I think we're at our apex right now and I think we're more prepared for success than we ever have been," Marsch said. "I think it's a big-game team and I think we're ready for some big challenges."
Challenging is what this season has been for the Red Bulls.
With some unfinished business on their to-do list following the heartbreaking playoff loss to Columbus, the Red Bulls stumbled out of the gates, starting the season 1-6. But the players continued to buy into the system and the philosophy that Marsch and sporting director Ali Curtis brought to the organization last year.
Eventually, the desired results started to show in the standings. After that rough start, the Red Bulls went on a 6-1-1 run, including a 7-0 win over NYCFC at Yankee Stadium and big victories over Chicago, Toronto, and Seattle at Red Bull Arena. All of a sudden, the Red Bulls were back in business.
Now, as they head down the stretch towards the postseason, the Red Bulls have their eyes on the prize.
"I'm really happy with the mentality of our group right now," said Marsch, who has also guided the Red Bulls into the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. "I think we've been through a lot together. We try to have the mind frame that from adversity we always try to learn and grown and get better."
Dealing with adversity and learning from mistakes has certainly been a huge part of the Red Bulls' season, even during their unbeaten streak. In what has been a head-scratching and mind-blowing blemish on what has been an otherwise quality campaign, the Red Bulls have squandered five two-goal leads in the second half that turned wins into draws and felt like losses.
Had the Red Bulls not seen those 10 points vanish, they would currently hold a massive lead in the Eastern Conference and would be in line for a second straight Supporters' Shield. But despite those blips on the radar screen, Marsch has been able to steer the Red Bulls' ship back on course towards the ultimate goal.
Marsch has consistently looked at the blown leads with a glass half-full mentality because the team has become stronger.
"I think it's kept us in check in a good way," Marsch said. "As frustrating as it has been to think about how many points that we've given away, in the end I think this is going to be a really good thing for us because it has kept us hungry and it has kept us motivated and it has meant that we've had to keep pushing down the stretch here."
The Red Bulls are off this week after their exciting 3-2 win over Philadelphia this past Saturday at Red Bull Arena. The victory clinched a home game in the MLS playoffs as a crowd of 22,731 watched McCarty score the game-winning goal in the 66th minute. The fans are certainly excited about the Red Bulls' chances of making another run at a championship, but it wasn't that long ago that they were miserable.
That was before last season when popular head coach and former MetroStars/Red Bulls defender Mike Petke was fired and replaced by Marsch, who knew exactly what kind of situation he was getting himself into.
"I was not surprised at all at the response of the fans at both the situation with Mike or now with their questions in the direction of the company," said Marsch, who tried to fan the flames with Curtis at a town hall meeting not long after the coaching change.
"What we tried to convey was that we were competent people, that we had strong leadership qualities, that we had a vision and that we were going to put it into place. For us right now with where we are, it's not about looking backwards and patting ourselves on the back. It's continuing to hunt moving forward."
What Marsch has achieved with the Red Bulls so far in his tenure is to mold an organization of opportunity. Sure, there are stars like goal-scoring machine Bradley Wright-Phillips, reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Luis Robles, and U.S. National Team midfielder Sacha Kljestan, but the Red Bulls have built a strong first team from top to bottom and the depth doesn't stop there.
Marsch, Curtis and the entire organization, including general manager Marc de Grandpre take pride in the Red Bulls Academy, which continues to produce quality young talent. And then there's New York Red Bulls II, the organization's developmental team that plays in the United Soccer League.
From time to time this season, the Red Bulls have called up players like Tyler Adams from NYRB II for MLS games and Champions League contests. NYRB II finished atop the USL regular season standings and will take on Rochester in the Eastern Conference semifinals on Friday at Red Bull Arena.
"It's incredible," Marsch said. "It's something that we're proud of but that we need to continue to get right. Because the more that we can establish the understanding for our players as to what it's going to take to develop and grow and fit within our system, then ultimately the more championships we're going to win across the board."
As far as a championship for the first team this season, the Red Bulls' rivals across the river in the Bronx could have something to say about it. It's very possible that the Red Bulls and NYCFC could meet at some point in the playoffs. In just two seasons, the rivalry has become fierce and it would only escalate in the postseason.
"It would be awesome," Marsch said. "I've been impressed with the job that (NYCFC Head Coach) Patrick Vieira has done. It's a team that I think we respect, but also a team that we would be really excited to play in the playoffs. There's still a long way to go to get to that point, but I think the possibility is exciting for the fan bases and certainly for the clubs and the two teams."
When Marsch took over as Red Bulls coach last year, he found himself in a tough spot. He was replacing a fan favorite and the fans were so angry that some of them put up billboards begging Red Bull to sell the team. In less than two seasons, he's won many of those unhappy fans over because the team is a championship contender.
"We have the ultimate goals in mind and we don't want anything to get in the way of us really achieving that," Marsch said.
With a mission statement like that, Marsch should have had the Red Bulls fans at "hello."
But better late than never.
You can follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @jessemarsch and @NewYorkRedBulls
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