HARRISON, N.J. – Red smoke billowed from the South Ward section for the hardcore fans at Red Bull Arena. Their drums reverberated and their voices and claps carried. They were enjoying themselves, alternating between glee – as their own team looked perhaps the best it had in any of its 20 seasons – and schadenfreude – as their archrivals took a savage soccer beating.
To call the residents of the South Ward long-suffering is to shortchange their misery somehow. The New York Red Bulls, and the pre-rebrand MetroStars before that, have at times conjured a special kind of dysfunction, a malpractice that has beggared belief, reason and even the worst of luck. So in the bone-soaking humidity of a summer night in New Jersey, they took it all in on Sunday. They gobbled up every scrap of the Red Bulls' 3-0 thrashing of D.C. United, which, with a few different bounces and less than stellar work from goalkeeper Bill Hamid, could have been a multiple of that score line. The Red Bulls outshot D.C. 15-2 in the first half alone.
This they had not expected.
The past offseason was supposed to be something of a nadir in the club's tortured existence. New sporting director Ali Curtis had been on the job just two weeks when he fired head coach Mike Petke with a barely coherent explanation. Something about a new direction, about a different style and embracing the modernity of the game. Or something.
Petke had been one of the few good things to happen to the club, as far as the bulk of the fans were concerned. He was a scrappy fighter as a defender and a no-nonsense manager who had finally won the club its first trophy, the 2013 Supporter's Shield for the best regular-season record. In his second year, he brought the Red Bulls within a goal of only their second MLS Cup.
When the club put on a town hall in January for the principals to explain the seemingly inexplicable, the scene soon turned ugly. Curtis was shouted down by furious fans, as was general manager Marc de Grandpre. Petke's replacement, Jesse Marsch, initially got short shrift as well as they were all heckled mercilessly. Only goalkeeper Luis Robles, the only player in attendance, was spared.
It seemed like the front office wasn't alone in changing course. The ownership was as well, judging from appearances.
The Red Bull model had been to attract major names from Europe and build teams around them. Results had been mixed. But in recent years, the various Red Bull teams – turnover was always very high – would get themselves into the playoffs and then stumble, usually early on. But after Thierry Henry retired and Tim Cahill fell out of favor and moved on to China, no big signings came to replace them.
This franchise had always had at least one name with real resonance in the soccer world, relying on that fading star to draw crowds and win games. But for the first time in as long as anybody could remember, the Red Bulls had no marquee name, and they never signed one. Sacha Kljestan was the biggest name they signed. And while he's a fine professional who has represented his country on a fair number of occasions, his reputation can't match that of the club's signings of yore, like Youri Djorkaeff, Lothar Matthaus, Roberto Donadoni or Juan Pablo Angel.
A cynic could conclude that the club's ownership, which had been rumored for some time to be shopping the team, had finally lost interest or faith. All that remained of the team's former glitz was the most expensive soccer stadium in North America. The payroll collapsed from eight figures to about $3.6 million – per the Players Union's latest publicized figures – the lowest in the league and about a fifth of crosstown rivals New York City FC's MLS-record $17.8 million. Ten players in the league now each make more than all the Red Bulls combined.
Yet now, suddenly, the Red Bulls have found immediate and significant success. Other than a four-game swoon from late May to mid June, they're 12-3-6. Since that blip – and it really does appear to have just been that – they are 8-1-2. They now sit just two points out of first place in the Eastern Conference, currently still held by D.C. United, but with nine games remaining to United's six.
On Sunday, their domination was total, with the Red Bulls' high pressure, fluidity and crisp passing mincing United into chunks. "They do a great job of pressing and if you can't handle it, that's what it's going to look like," D.C. head coach Ben Olsen said. "[New York] is right now the gold standard in the East."
So how did this happen?
"There's been a big shift in mentality, a big change in the way we approach games," captain and midfield metronome Dax McCarty explained. "In the past, it was a lot of individual talent, a lot of ability. We were always one of the more talented teams in the league but not a lot of cohesiveness, not a lot of team unity."
This incarnation of the Red Bulls, however, is a team without stars. With the responsibility now shared collectively, rather than the brunt of it borne by Henry alone, several players have broken out.
"We don't have one single player that's going to change games for us," McCarty said. "We need eight, nine, 10 guys to be playing at a high level for us to win. Maybe [the presence of a big star like Henry last season] made other players a little more invisible than they are now. We have a lot of unsung guys that are now stepping up in his absence."
Adjacent to Red Bull Arena, there's a cavernous old warehouse that's now used for parking during game days. Its façade used to be covered by three-story-tall images of the team's big stars. Henry, of course. And Cahill. Rafa Marquez was up there for a while. Angel. But this season, those giant, cloth effigies have been taken down.
The veteran players are quick to credit their rapid coalescing into a close-knit and well-drilled team to Marsch.
"Jesse had a plan and a philosophy," said Kljestan, holding his young daughter on his arm following the game. "He talked to everybody about it from day one. And the most important part was that everybody bought in. We didn't have guys that after a meeting going behind everyone else's back and saying 'This isn't going to work, we're not going to do well playing like that.' Everybody bought in from day one."
"It's hard when you've got older guys or more experienced guys who have played at a really high level and maybe the level of MLS is a little bit lower than what they're used to and they get frustrated easily," Kljestan added. "We have guys that have just bought in. We have a sign outside when we walk into the training pitch and it says 'All in, every day.' And that's been our motto."
Marsch and the front office have apparently turned the Red Bulls – where players, staffers, executives and front office personnel came and went quickly in the past – into a unified club. "Everybody shares in this [success]," said Marsch. "It's been a total group effort from top to bottom. I think if you went around this organization right now, everybody feels that they're part of this and that they have ownership of it."
Perhaps, in the end, Curtis has been vindicated in his coaching change. Another town hall with the fans is scheduled for this week. Curtis, Marsch and de Grandpre are expected to attend again. McCarty will represent the players this time around.
"I'm just very happy for Dax that we won tonight," Robles said with a smirk, thinking back to his own appearance some seven months ago when all looked so gloomy. "So that when he goes there on Wednesday he's gonna be alright."
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.