By Peter Schwartz
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After winning the Supporters' Shield in 2015, the Red Bulls came out of the gates slowly this season, getting off to a 1-6 start. A 3-2 win over Orlando City SC on April 24 snapped a four-game losing streak, but the Red Bulls were still looking for someone that could help change the team's fortunes.
That day at Red Bull Arena, sporting director Ali Curtis and head coach Jesse Marsch looked over at the Orlando bench and saw someone they thought could help. That player was veteran defender Aurélien Collin, who was making a lot of money in Orlando but whose playing time was declining. Five days later, the Red Bulls acquired Collin in exchange for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2017 SuperDraft.
"I was in Orlando on the bench," recalled Collin. "Then I had this amazing opportunity to come to the Red Bulls. Since I came into MLS, it was a dream for me to play one day for the Red Bulls, one of the best clubs with an amazing stadium and a great training center. It's everything that a football player could dream of."
Not only did his dream come true, but Collin helped turn the Red Bulls' season around. The Red Bulls have already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs in advance of Sunday's regular season finale in Philadelphia. The three-time MLS All-Star played his first four Major League Soccer seasons with Sporting Kansas City, winning an MLS Cup title in 2013.
Now he has his eyes on another championship, this time with the Red Bulls.
"The Red Bulls had an amazing season," said Collin, a native of Enghien-les-Bains, France. "It was a complicated start, and then after the team got back to where they belonged, now we are No. 1 in the East. We have a very good team. We can beat anybody in the league."
The Red Bulls have been mathematically eliminated from the race for the Supporters' Shield, but they will finish the regular season with no worse than the third-best record in MLS. Had it not been for five games when two-goal leads in the second half slipped away, turning wins into draws, the Red Bulls would also be celebrating a second straight regular season championship.
But Collin and the Red Bulls have turned the page on those bumps in the road and have their eyes on the prize.
"We've had a lot of bad finishes to games, and now we know what we have to do to make sure we manage it better," Collin said. "With all of the mistakes that we have done during the season and everything that we've been through, I think we're ready for the playoffs."
But there's still some business for the Red Bulls to take care of before the postseason.
They need a win at Philadelphia on Sunday, coupled with a Colorado loss to Houston on Saturday night, to finish second overall in the league. Regardless of potential outcomes, the Red Bulls are expected to play to win Sunday as they continue to tune up for a run at the MLS Cup.
For Collin and the Red Bulls, Sunday's game against the Union will be business as usual.
"We really want to get a win," Collin said. "It's a very important game, and I believe that Jesse is going to put a good team on the field, and we're going there to win to prepare for next week."
That's when the Red Bulls will begin their postseason run against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
Despite a season full of highs and lows, the Red Bulls are right where they want to be. They finished in first place, avoiding a first-round knockout game, and they are playing with confidence.
Had it not been for the acquisition of Collin and his veteran leadership, there might not have been a turnaround from that tumultuous 1-6 start.
NYRB II SET TO PLAY FOR A CHAMPIONSHIP
As the Red Bulls prepare to make a run at the MLS Cup, their reserve team, New York Red Bulls II, is one win away from adding some hardware to the organization's trophy case.
NYRB II will host the Swope Park Rangers (Sporting KC's developmental squad) in the USL Cup final on Sunday night at Red Bull Arena.
"It feels great," said NYRB II head coach John Wolyniec, a former player for the MetroStars/Red Bulls. "It's a great opportunity for us. Our guys are really excited about it."
Red Bulls II, led by midfielders Tyler Adams and Florian Valot, forward Brandon Allen, defender Aaron Long and goalkeeper Ryan Meara, advanced to the championship game thanks to back-to-back penalty-kick shootout victories, including last week's win over Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference final at Red Bull Arena.
NYRB II had an outstanding regular season, finishing at the top of the Eastern Conference table with a record of 21-3-6, good for 69 points. After their run in the postseason, Red Bulls II are battle tested for the title match.
"We feel that way," said Wolyniec, a finalist for USL Coach of the Year. "We should feel battle tested. We know Swope Park is going to come in and give us a great game. We feel really good about where we've been and where we're at."
Over the last two years, the Red Bulls have put together a strong organization from top to bottom. While the first team is already a championship contender, it's reassuring for the front office to know that the second team is flourishing as well.
Don't forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NewYorkRedBulls, @ampC2, and @NYRB II.
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