Red Bulls Navigate Through Controversy and Protest In Latest Matches


The Red Bulls dealt with controversy recently, shaking the organization. (Courtesy of Twitter)

This past week, change has been one of the strangest and most difficult times in New York Red Bulls history. This unfortunate reality stems from an incident in the 54th minute of last weekend’s 1-1 draw against the San Jose Earthquakes in which Red Bulls Designated Player striker Dante Vanzeir used a racial epithet, resulting in a lengthy stoppage, investigation and, eventually, a six-game suspension for the Belgian. Fans, pundits and observers have taken to online spaces to vent their frustrations against Vanzeir for his deplorable actions, the club for their inaction in punishing the player, the league for imposing a weak suspension and head coach Gerhard Struber for leaving Vanzeir in the match after the incident and subsequent investigation.

In the next match against the Houston Dynamo at Red Bull Arena just a week later, all three flagship supporters groups (Empire Supporters Club, the Viking Army and Torcida 96) walked out of their seats and vacated their sections behind the goal known as the South Ward at the start of the match, chanting “Fire Struber” on their way out. It’s certainly been a strange and confusing season so far in Harrison, N.J. with an 18-minute stoppage in the game against the Quakes and a coordinated fan walk-out the following week.

As expected, these sorts of scandals and demonstrations can take a toll on the team and its players. After the match against Houston on Saturday, New York homegrown midfielder Daniel Edelman said, “What happened brought everyone’s morale down. But we’re looking to look at the situation at hand and still come together as a team and keep going because we don’t tolerate it and we don’t stand for racism or anything like that.” Red Bulls winger Cameron Harper spoke of the South Ward’s premature exit, saying, “They’re the fans who have been here since day one. It was sad to see it, but I understand it’s a tough time for the club right now and the fans have the right to feel the way they feel.”

Facing perhaps the most music for what went down last Saturday is Struber, who has been criticized not only for his actions during the match, but also for his lack of an apology when releasing statements in the days shortly after. Not to mention, members of the media and fans have made it clear that they don’t particularly appreciate Struber’s record of eight points through eight matches and his unwillingness to take accountability for the team’s results. For the first time in his seven-year managerial career, Struber felt his team’s supporters turn on him, which he said was “a painful feeling.” Struber added, “Today, for me, was the first time that I realized a situation like that. But at the same time, I have respect for the opinions and also the feelings of our supporters.”

Outrage is not just contained to New York and Red Bulls fans, though, as the soccer world has unfortunately been forced to have conversations about racism and its impact on the game. From across the pond, Belgian star striker Romelu Lukaku, who briefly shared the international stage with Vanzeir in 2021, told MLS Apple TV+ analyst and former Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan that he was deeply disappointed in his fellow international and wouldn’t want to have a player who used racial language in the locker room. CBS Sports pundit and former U.S. Men’s National Team forward Charlie Davies advocated for a season-long suspension for Vanzeir, claiming that “a season [suspension] is not that hard to ask for when someone tells you they said something like this,” referring to Vanzeir’s admission to using language, despite not having directed a word at anyone in particular.

Amidst all the chaos, New York managed to put up one of their better performances of the year against Houston, but still found themselves let down by their lack of goalscoring chops. The Red Bulls managed to get a point in each of their last two contests, with consecutive late equalizers from Tom Barlow and Omir Fernandez respectively to continue New York’s mediocre form at home that really began early in 2022.

After eight matches, the Red Bulls sit in 12th place in the Eastern Conference on eight points and just one win to their name. The missing goalscoring touch continues to haunt the New York Red Bulls, and they will have to navigate their way back on the right track without Vanzeir. More importantly, the players have now been tasked with mending relationships within their own dressing room and with the fans, who have indicated that their return to fandom in numbers may be contingent on the dismissal of New York’s head coach. Either way, it’s certainly among the lowest points in Metrostars/Red Bulls history, a club that is already famous for having so many low points to begin with. For some fans, the incident, aftermath and inaction from the club and league may be the final straw.

Gerhard Struber has taken on the responsibility of “starting the healing process” by himself, recognizing that before the club can move forward it will need to mend relationships between many different parties. However, even after conversations with each of the supporters’ groups and members of the Earthquakes, Struber still remains on the hot seat and far from good graces with the supporters. If Struber plans on sticking around, as it seems Red Bulls sporting director Jochen Schneider wants, then it is important that the mending starts soon ahead of their match against CF Montreal at Stade Saputo on Saturday, a city where they have only won once in the last 10 years.