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New York Red Bulls reap immediate rewards from offseason shakeup

When newly installed Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis fired club legend Mike Petke and appointed Jesse Marsch in his place as coach in January, the blowback was as intense as it was predictable.

Petke, a New York native, was beloved by fans of a franchise that hadn't won a trophy in 18 seasons, until he led it to the Supporters' Shield two years ago. When the ax fell, he was the most successful manager in the club's history. So it was no surprise that Curtis instantly became Public Enemy No. 1 among the diehards, many of whom loudly voiced their displeasure at a hastily arranged town hall meeting a few weeks later.

The mood is much different eight months on. Heading into Sunday's game in Portland against the Timbers (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN), the Red Bulls have quietly emerged as the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Despite the egg they laid in New England on Wednesday -- Marsch called the 2-1 loss "one of our worst of the year" -- they trail the first-place Revs by a single point, with two games in hand, and are still well positioned to make a long playoff run this fall.

Curtis has won over many of his biggest critics along the way. At the Red Bulls' most recent town hall, earlier this month, Curtis, Marsch and general manager Marc de Grandpre received a standing ovation from season-ticket holders.

"It's been overwhelming recently, the positive feedback," Curtis told ESPN FC this week in a phone interview. "I knew going into the role that in the New York metropolitan market, you have to be tough. You have to have thick skin, and sometimes you're going to get criticized. But I think we've done a really good job of sticking to our plan."

Curtis' plan -- a tangible, 300-page document he considers the blueprint on how to build an MLS team from the ground up -- was a source of derision among fans after the regime change went down. But Marsch, who has cemented his reputation as one of the sharpest coaches in MLS this season, was on the same wavelength as his boss from the start.

After the offseason departure of veteran designated players Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry, both men wanted the squad to get younger and quicker. They also wanted them to play a new high-press system, and Marsch was able to get the players to buy into his philosophy immediately. Almost.

"I can't say that everyone from the very beginning was all in," said goalkeeper Luis Robles, now in his fourth season with the club. "There was a lot of skepticism; not necessarily on his ability to lead the team, but on this high-risk, high-reward defending he wanted. It wasn't a criticism of the style. The question was if we were going to be able to pull it off for 34 games, especially during the hot summer months."

But other than a four-game losing streak in May and June that coincided with young central defender Matt Miazga's trip to the U-20 World Cup, they've been among the league's most consistent teams.

"The way he delivered the message, he won over the veterans who had been here in years past," Robles said. Using analytics and empirical data, Marsch was able to show that his players were actually running less and possessing the ball more in his style of play. And it has been entertaining to watch.

"I felt like playing fast was always a way to think faster and overwhelm other teams," Marsch said when asked what convinced him his approach would be effective. "It hasn't always been the easiest transition but I will say that our players have been committed to creating an identity that is about the mentality of the group."

Bradley Wright-Phillips has surprised new manager Jesse Marsch not only with his goal scoring, but with his work ethic.

That meant individual roles had to change, not least that of star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips. Wright-Phillips scored 27 goals in 2014, tying the league's single-season goal mark. He has 14 strikes this year, but Marsch, who re-watched every game the Red Bulls played last season as preparation for the job, said he's even better now.

"Brad's had to become a more complete player in order to be effective within our system," the coach said, noting how impressed he's been by Wright-Phillips' training habits. "I saw how smart his movement was around the goal last season, but what I didn't know was how great his work ethic was on a daily basis, how much ground he covers, how much he fights for his teammates, the little things he does off the ball to help his team be successful."

Speaking of success, how far can the Red Bulls go this year? The road to MLS Cup will surely go through New England, and Western Conference behemoth LA Galaxy is still the favorite to retain their title. But most bookies have bestowed on the Red Bulls the second-best odds -- something nobody would've bet on back in January.

The feel-good vibes don't end there. Curtis said the club recently made contact with Petke, with the hope that he'll return to the Red Bulls in a to-be-determined capacity. "I've spoken to his agent a number of times throughout the year," Curtis said. "That offer is still there." Embracing the past is just one part of the long game now being played in Harrison, New Jersey.

"We're nine months into this project," Marsch said. " We're ahead of schedule, there's no doubt about it, and the players deserve most of the credit.

"Ultimate success this year would mean winning MLS Cup. But the end goal is not Dec. 6. It's to have five, 10 years of creating something that's real, that's consistent, that's a champion multiple times over. Whether or not we win it this year will be inconsequential in the long-term project."

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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