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MLS Eastern Conference Preview: New York Red Bulls

Upheaval in New Jersey may add up to some regression for the Red Bulls

The New York Red Bulls, unfortunately, have been good for a few years now. Really good. They’ve gotten at least 50 points in each of the last five seasons, and in four of those five they topped 55 points. They ran into a problem last season in MVP voting because they had two players splitting ballots. The connection from their academy, to their USL club, to the senior team is the model for most MLS teams.

And yet, it looks like they’re about to regress. A cornerstone has been traded away, Ali Curtis is no longer with the club, and they started their 2017 season with a 1-1 home draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps that could have been worse if not for a fairly high-degree-of-difficulty finish from Bradley Wright-Phillips.

Last season

Regular season: 57 points (16W-9D-9L, +16GD) | 1st in East
Playoffs: Eastern Conference semifinals (3-1 aggregate loss to Montreal)

Let’s be frank here: If not for a miserable start to the season, NYRB would have won their third Supporters Shield in five years. They missed out by three points, and even starting the season 2W-1D-4L - which is well below their points-per-game on the season - would have been enough.

The Red Bulls finished the regular season on a sixteen-game unbeaten streak; on the actual calendar, they went 117 days without losing before Montreal’s 1-0 first leg victory in the conference semis. This is a team that should be refining things and maybe upgrading on some aging players rather than changing formations, moving key players into new positions, and trading away cornerstones of the roster.

Projected starting lineup

Of course, I’m happy to report that they’ve done all of those things. Jesse Marsch appears dead set on making this 4222 (that defends much more as a standard 442, but we’ll accept the attacking posture as their formation’s true form) work even though it has repeatedly failed.

In this case, the problems are simple: Sacha Kljestan is moved out of his best position and over to a wing, while erratic-at-best big-money signing Gonzalo Veron is given a starting job at the expense of one of NYRB’s more consistent wingers (be it Mike Grella, Daniel Royer, or Alex Muyl). If this goes like it has gone every other time Marsch has attempted it, look for the return of a 4231 that looks like this.

In any case, Veron will partner Bradley Wright-Phillips, while Sean Davis will at least start the season as Felipe’s new partner in defensive midfield. In the back, Aaron Long - we’ll talk about him in a moment - seems to be holding off Damien Perrinelle (who for a while was out of contract) as Aurelien Collin’s partner. With Connor Lade dealing with a torn ACL, new loan signing Michael Murillo (a 21 year old with 9 caps for Panama) will battle with Sal Zizzo to start at right back.

Key loss: Dax McCarty

With all due respect to the eye-popping amount of TAM involved in the move that sent Kevin Molino to Minnesota, the biggest trade of the offseason was undoubtedly the deal that moved McCarty to Chicago. McCarty was a centerpiece for NYRB, critical in what they do on both sides of the ball, as well as both team captain and the chief source of personality within their squad. It’s a huge loss.

So why would the Red Bulls trade him away (and to a conference foe, to boot)? This is a classic scenario where they’d rather move him a year before he starts to decline, while his value is still maxed out, as opposed to hanging on for one year too long. The play of Sean Davis in his spot last season, when McCarty missed time with a leg fracture, as well as the emergence of US under-20 dynamo Tyler Adams are also huge factors. The NYRB plan, as a club, is to grow players from their Academy and NYRB2, and those two are both Homegrowns (with Adams playing for the USL champion Baby Bulls last year).

Davis most likely enters the season as the starter, but neither he nor central midfield partner/actual villain Felipe is a natural #6. Felipe will have to take more of that job on due to his experience, but the whole thing seems like a placeholder until Adams - who has been with the u20s for much of the preseason - can settle in and win the job at training.

Regardless of whether Davis remains the starter or Adams emerges, the fact is that NYRB’s window to win an MLS Cup with their current core group is closing. Wright-Phillips turns 32 in eleven days, and Kljestan does the same later this season. Aurelien Collin turns 31 in a week. The decision to move on from McCarty makes sense if you look at this as a business. It doesn’t really make sense within the context of their roster.

Key uh, re-signing: Aaron Long

Long was signed from NYRB2 late last summer, but didn’t really play too many games. He was signed to provide depth at center back for an NYRB team with injuries at that spot. Most of his actual playing time still came with NYRB2, just as a loanee rather than a full-time member of the Red Bulls satellite team.

This year, though, it looks like they believe he can be a starter. Perrinelle was re-signed, and Hassan Ndam was added, but when it came time to put a team on the field for a competitive game, Long got the nod in the CCL opener. The belief is that the former midfielder’s comfort on the ball make him a good partner for the more rustic talents of Collin.

We’ll see how it pans out. Long was a 2nd round pick for Portland in 2014, sent on loan to the USL, waived, picked up by Seattle to help stock Sounders 2 in 2015, and then moved on to NYRB2 last year. He has never appeared in an MLS league match. Does that sound like the resume of a starting center back for a supposed contender to you?

If Long isn’t up to the task, Perrinelle is a reasonable choice, but that’s only if he’s fit. At 33 years old and coming off of a season where he was hurt more often than not, that’s a big if. Most likely, the club plans on one day restoring Gideon Baah to the lineup, but his recovery from last year’s broken leg has been hit with a few setbacks. As such, there is a ton of pressure on Long to come through. A high-pressure system simply cannot work with bad center back play.

Key player: Gonzalo Veron

The move to 4222 comes from a few different sources. RB Leipzig, having just been promoted to the Bundesliga last year, is likely going to qualify for the Champions League playing out of a 4222, and don’t think for a second that NYRB’s formation and tactical choices are solely from the mind of Marsch and others at Red Bull Arena.

However, another factor here is the investment in Veron, who so far has largely struggled as a winger while failing to displace consistent Golden Boot contender Wright-Phillips. Adding a second forward gives Veron a way onto the field, and it must be said that his late-season form was pretty good (despite largely playing on the left).

The formation switch isn’t entirely based on Veron (this isn’t the Red Bulls version of D.C. United’s changes designed to fit their own pricey Argentine), but it is partially about a player who, if we’re being generous, could be described as mercurial. Veron’s job is to make up for the goals, assists, and chances created that will be lost by pushing Kljestan out of the center channel, and by dropping someone like Grella (7 goals/6 assists last year) or Royer (1 goal/1 assist in 275 minutes after joining late in the season).

That’s a lot of weight to carry. Kljestan put up 6 goals and 20 assists, and his 3.3 key passes per 90 minutes played were easily the best in MLS (Diego Valeri and Mauro Diaz, with 2.9 per 90, were tied for 2nd). Pushing him out of the position that made that number possible seems like a colossal risk, and it only pays off if having an extra forward in front of him does no harm. Kljestan’s not going to fall off a cliff or anything playing this left-center attacking midfield role, but when a team changes an MVP contender’s position in part to accommodate another player, that other player better play like a star. In other words, Veron has to play better than he ever has in a Red Bulls jersey to make this formation change a sensible choice.

Overall prospects

Here’s the bad news: NYRB is still good. Their high press has looked mostly good in the preseason despite the formation change, and we’re still talking about a team with two of MLS’s best attackers. They’ve got depth, and crucially, their system doesn’t really change when someone steps out of the lineup. They’re probably going to extend that 50 points in a season streak.

However, I don’t see them going much beyond that line. This team has regressed, and the calm and confident air around the team has been punctured by the McCarty trade the Curtis issue being left unsettled for so long, and the likely issue with getting production from Veron and the other non-BWP forwards on the roster that this formation change will emphasize. There are enough bad ideas involved in the construction of this year’s NYRB team that they seem bound to drop away from “contender” and into MLS’s second tier.