The 2013 New York Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield. Yes, they bowed out in the Eastern Conference semifinals...at home...again. And yes, that makes four consecutive seasons with a home playoff loss. And yes, the team’s home playoff record since 2006 is 0-5-2. But when you’ve gone 17 years without winning anything, having your team's identity stripped away, burning through players, coaches and GMs like tinder, you tend to appreciate the small victories. The Red Bulls won the 2013 Supporters' Shield, and in 25 years, that’s something that most people will remember. 2013 Finish: 17-9-8, 59 points; 58 GF, 41 GA; Won Supporters Shield. Lost in Conference Semifinals
|Bobby Convey||M||Trade from Toronto||Kevin Hartman||GK||Retired|
|Armando||D||Free transfer||David Carney||D||Option declined|
|Richard Eckersley||D||Trade from Toronto||Brandon Barklage||D||Option declined|
|Heath Pearce||D||Out of contract|
|Amando Moreno||F||Out of contract|
|Fabian Espindola||F||Option declined|
|Markus Holgersson||D||Contract terminated|
Nothing to See Here
The New York Red Bulls' off-season has been marked by an uncharacteristic amount of patience. Hundreds of players, fourteen coaches,
nine ten general managers/sporting directors, three ownership groups, and two team names in 18 years have made chaos the status quo in North Jersey. For a team as historically turbulent as the Red Bulls (née Metrostars), it is downright bizarre to see them act so calmly.
Of course, it makes sense for the Red Bulls to stand pat. The Red Bulls won the Supporters Shield last season. They may not have played the prettiest soccer, but from a results-oriented perspective, you can’t do any better. Well, not during the regular season anyway. The league is improving, and the core of the Red Bulls is aging, but for now this side appears like it will remain a solid playoff team.
The New Guys
The Red Bulls signed only three new players this offseason: Bobby Convey and Richard Eckersley from Toronto FC in separate trades, and Armando, a central defender, who most recently plied his trade with Córdoba in the Spanish second division. The Red Bulls also selected two players in the second round of the MLS SuperDraft. With the 22nd overall pick, they took Wake Forest right back Chris Duvall, and with the 34th overall pick they selected Eric Stevenson, a central midfielder from powerhouse Akron.
No Keeper Controversy... Yet
Luis Robles started the 2013 season shakily; he had issues with both coming out for crosses too aggressively, and not aggressively enough. According to Opta, Robles finished last season with five errors, four of which resulted in goals for the opposition, tying him with Zac MacMath and Corey Ashe for the league lead. On the bright side, all five of his errors took place in the first half of the season, and by mid-summer, Robles had steadied his hands and decision-making enough that he would ultimately be considered one of the strengths of the Red Bull team. Entering 2014, Red Bulls fans feel confident that Luis Robles will become the first keeper to start more than 20 games in consecutive seasons since Jonny Walker in 2003 and 2004.
The Spanish Armando
The defense is the only part of the team that will be noticeably altered from last season. Markus Holgersson, who was second on the team in minutes last season, is the biggest loss for the Red Bulls. The big Swede led the team in tackles last season, and was also 7th among MLS defenders (and 25th overall) in pass completion. The Red Bulls are hopeful that Armando, who spent 3 seasons with Barcelona B, will be able to step into Holgersson’s spot in the lineup. Brandon Barklage, who started 20 games last season at right back, had his option declined as the team chose to go with Kosuke Kimura and the recently acquired Eckersley. Most importantly, Jamison Olave will be back to anchor the backline. Last year, the 32-year-old defender amassed the second-highest minutes total of his career, though he spent 115 of the team’s 180 playoff minutes off the pitch, earning a red card for a rash tackle on Omar Cummings in the first leg in Houston. Red Bulls fans should be willing to forgive him for his blunder, as after all, anyone can make a mistake in the playoffs.
Multiple mistakes in the playoffs are harder for fans to forgive. Defender Roy Miller began the 2013 season on the hot seat, due to his history of playoff blunders, both actual and perceived. Then, in the second game of the season, Roy Miller didn't just (literally) handle the ball to give San Jose a late penalty kick, and he didn't just encroach on the attempt, which was saved by Robles allowing the Earthquakes a retake, but he baffled everyone by admitting after the game that he intentionally encroached, trying to throw Wondolowski off. Of course, anyone who knows the Laws of the Game (and many who don't) can tell you that this is a no-win situation: a saved attempt will result in a retake, while a goal will stand. Miller would eventually win back his place in the starting lineup, though an achilles injury in late August would cause him to miss the rest of the season, giving rise to the ill-fated David Carney era.
The Man of Steele
Last year, a lack of left-footed depth on the Red Bulls all but guaranteed a healthy Miller the left back position in the starting lineup. This year, the acquisition of Bobby Convey will ensure competition on the left side of the field, not just for Miller, but also Jonny Steele. In 2013, Steele started 33 games as the left midfielder for the Red Bulls, providing a seemingly endless stream of sprints up and down the flank. He was third among Red Bull midfielders in shots, behind Cahill, who played a decent amount at forward, and Juninho, whose shot numbers are boosted by (unsuccessful) dead ball attempts. But the one area where Steele falls short is the one in which Convey excels: passing. Last season, Convey had better per-90 numbers in all of the following: total passes, pass success rate, key passes, cross success rate, and long ball success rate, and that’s despite playing for Toronto!
Skill or Pace?
On the other side of the field, Coach Mike Petke will have to decide whether to start Eric Alexander or Lloyd Sam. Alexander, who picked up his second cap in January, prefers to cut inside and combine with McCarty/Henry or go to goal himself, showing no fear of taking on defenders one-on-one. He finished third on the team in successful dribbles, with 0.9 per game, and among Red Bull players with 10 or more dribbles, he finished with the highest dribble success rate, at 70%. Sam provides something that nobody else on the team sheet does: excellent speed. The first true winger the club has had since Dane Richards, Sam likes to stay wide, use his speed to evade defenders, and flight in crosses. Look at the difference in crosses between the two potential right mids: Alexander averaged 1.55 crosses per 90, while Sam averaged 4.75. Sam also had a better cross success rate, 30% to 12%. Additionally, Sam’s pace provides problems for opponents on the counterattack, as can be seen here and here (kudos also to Luis Robles for his quick and accurate distribution). With all of that said, expect Alexander to be the starter on opening day, as he provides much more structure during the defensive phase of play. Sam, after all, finished 2013 with the lowest tackles per 90 on the team, closer to Luis Robles than Eric Alexander.
The man with the greatest number of tackles per 90? None other than Dax McCarty, who finished in the league’s top 20 in 2013 with 2.82 tackles per 90. McCarty has the thankless task of sitting deep in the midfield, breaking up opposing attacks, connecting the defense with the midfield, and not being named Kyle Beckerman. In 2012, McCarty completed the most passes in MLS with a mind-boggling 1,845 in 33 games. Last season, his numbers dropped ever-so-slightly, completing a still robust 1,373 of 1,616 passes in 30 matches. The most interesting component of McCarty’s passing is the fact that of his 1,616 passes, 809 were in the Red Bulls’ half of the field, and 807 were in the opposition’s half. Compare him to other defensive midfielders like Osvaldo Alonso (660/838), Diego Chara (611/994), or Brian Carroll (673/805), and even outside backs—Sean Franklin (456/837) or Lee Young-Pyo (535/804)—and it becomes evident how deep McCarty drops when New York is in possession of the ball.
Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!
For the Red Bulls to remain effective, McCarty must remain withdrawn most of the time, in order to counterbalance Tim Cahill’s attacking forays. That’s not to say that Cahill is an “attacking midfielder” per se. Cahill is one of the most well-rounded and efficient players in Major League Soccer. But he most certainly does attack the opponent’s goal. Despite spending about three-quarters of his time in the midfield, Cahill was 2nd on the Red Bulls in shots, averaging 2.21 per 90 minutes, and those shots were extremely dangerous: 49 of the 55 were taken from within the penalty area, and of the 11 goals he scored, 10 came from zones 1 and 2.* Part of the reason that he is able to take so many shots from so close is due to his exceptional aerial ability. Cahill won 59.1% of his aerial duels last season, good for 4.41 duels won per game. This was evident not only in opponents’ penalty areas, where he headed home 8 goals last season, but in his own half of the field, where he accumulated 80 clearances, only 12 fewer than McCarty, Alexander, and Steele combined.
*According to our soon-to-be-published Expected Goals 2.0, Cahill scored 46 percent more goals than a league-average player would be expected to score from the shots he attempted, good for 14th of the 40 players that took at least 50 shots in 2013. Not only does he earn high-quality shots, but he finishes them at an above-average clip.
The Attacking Options
If Cahill starts in the midfield, Bradley Wright-Phillips is likely start next to Henry at forward. The other option is for Cahill to start at forward, with Peguy Luyindula playing the #10 role in the midfield. So will it be Bradley or Peguy? Luyindula chipped in 863 minutes over the course of last season, but could never maintain a foothold in the starting lineup with Fabian Espindola around. Wright-Phillips, signed in July to give the team depth at forward, played 337 minutes. Luyindula spent the first first half of the season at forward, maligned by fans for his inability to finish promising goal-scoring opportunities. Disregarding his penalty kick goal (which was earned for him by Lloyd Sam), Luyindula took 20 shots (14 inside the box) without scoring a goal. However, he found his form near the end of the season after Petke began deploying him as a more withdrawn #10-type player. His apotheosis came in the season-ending, Shield-clinching victory over Chicago, in which he registered 3 assists.
Phillips was neither as begrudged nor as celebrated as Luyindula, but he put in solid shifts at forward. Despite being listed at only 5’8”, and 155 pounds, the Englishman demonstrated an ability to effectively hold up the ball, a facet missing from the team for the majority of the season, with both Henry and Espindola preferring to run at players. This strength was complemented by an ability to win the ball in the air. Wright-Phillips finished 3rd on the Red Bulls in aerials won per 90. The last area where Wright-Phillips excels over Luyindula is his directness. While Luyindula prefers to drop between the lines and receive the ball, Wright-Phillips is more of a prototypical nose-for-goal striker, and this showed, with Wright-Phillips averaging twice as many shots-per-90 as Peguy.
Last but not least, the captain. Thierry Henry will be entering his fifth season for the New York Red Bulls, and despite the fact that he will turn 37 this August, he remains one of the most electrifying players in the league. Despite his speed gradually declining, and a nagging achilles injury that keeps him off of artificial surfaces, Henry’s offensive productivity is still essential to the Red Bulls success. Henry led the team last year—and remember, this team won the Supporters Shield and scored the most goals in the league—in both shots-per-90 and key passes-per-90. The only other players to lead their club in both categories were Federico Higuain, Diego Valeri, and Mike Magee. Henry also finished in the top ten in Major League Soccer in both categories.
Entering the final year of Henry’s contract, he has provided Red Bulls fans all they could have asked for when he arrived. He has provided the team with a must-watch player who, at the top of his game, can perform feats of breathtaking skill. But more than that, he has been passionate about the team: wearing a Metrostars-inspired captain’s armband, spurring on the fans, and exhorting teammates to perform at a higher level. And all this time Red Bull fans were simply hoping that he wouldn’t be caught taking mid-season vacations on the beach in St. Tropez.
When the Red Bulls line up against Vancouver on March 8, they will do so as Supporters' Shield champions. They will also do so as the team that, yet again, flamed out of the playoffs too early. In the past four years, the Red Bull franchise has done an exemplary job of turning the public image of the club from anonymous losers to talented choke-artists. Baby steps. But the window for any collection of players to win a cup is finite, and with the potential of Thierry Henry departing the club after 2014, this season becomes especially important for a team in search of its first MLS Cup.
American Soccer Analysis readers project a second place in the Eastern Conference. 34.16% of voters believe that the Red Bulls will finish in 2nd place in the east, and 90.1% believe that they will make the playoffs.