By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
There is chaos. There is anarchy. Then, there is the New York Red Bulls…
What an off-season! First, world legend Thierry Henry retires from soccer, the club then fires the most successful coach in the history of the club on heels of another successful season while going into an off-season faced with the adversity of competing against a third club in their direct market and finally, the club agreed to mutually cut ties with designed player and star Tim Cahill in an awkward situation that had contentiously been building over the last six-months.
The New York Red Bulls, a team that could be one of the cornerstones a league like MLS is built upon and marketed, have become, instead, a meme for what not to do.
It's not that this is a new thing for supporters in Harrison, New Jersey so much as their patience is finally reaching a breaking point. The team town hall meeting was a contentious event that did little to re-establish any type of good will between the club and it's supporters. Instead the meeting bubbled over with supporters shouting and chanting angrily at their new head coach, their sporting director and one of the teams most beloved figures in goal, keeper Luis Robles.
It's too bad that all this stuff happened because it masks the smart personnel moves made by the club this off-season. They traded Ambroise Oyongo and Eric Alexander for Felipe Martins and the top allocation order ranking, which they flipped into to Sacha Kljestan. They brought in Ronald Zubar from French Ligue 1 and veteran winger Sal Zizzo by way of their new MLS rival NYCFC. A hugely forgotten moment was being able to acquire a top MLS ready talent in Leo Stoltz through the draft and sign him. All these moves were great and created a deeper talent pool all at a reasonable cost.
All this while they renegotiated Bradley Wright-Phillips deal and rewarded him for his exceptional golden boot season by making him a designated player. This enabled the Red Bulls to keep their new game changing talent in New York, a challenge that some thought could end badly and result in them selling him off.
They even added a coach that's been lauded for years as having potential in Jesse Marsch. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to turn a blind eye to what happened but as obtuse as it was to fire Petke, but Marsch was unjustly relieved of his role in Montreal. Viewed outside the context of Petke's firing, Marsch could still be a very good hire. According to smart know-it-all analysts, he has potential that would fit in a place like New York.
That said, let me turn on my emotions for a moment. I approach much of my analysis and writing free of how I feel and sometimes a bit cold and heartless.
They fired Mike Petke. A guy who lived, breathed and worshiped the club and their supporters above all else. I'm not a New York guy, I'm not even a Petke guy. But I'm an old school guy that loves to think of organizations as still having some semblance of loyalty and integrity.
Petke was the type that would have, probably, coached in New York as long as he was able or felt he could do it in an honorable manner. I believe that when the time came that he didn't feel he was the right fit for the club he would have stepped down and there was have been some sort of fairy tale ending.
That did not happen and its sad. It disappoints me for the fans of the New York Red Bulls that they don't get this opportunity. But this is a road that too many supporters must one day travel. A road that takes us down an ugly alley where we look at our club and realize this goes beyond simple sporty banter and into a sadness that cripples and pains the heart.
I've had those moments of utter disappointment and my greatest hope for all Red Bulls fans is that this season and these players bring relief and abridge your frustration.
Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Road Goes Ever On
The (new) Coach
After that preamble I feel like I should hate Marsch just the tiniest bit. But how he entered the Red Bulls also wasn't his fault.
Marsch spent a season in Montreal in 2012 and then he was gone for... whatever reason fancied Joey Saputo. There was supposedly key differentiating philosophies between Marsch and the front office, whatever those are.
Marsch used a single striker formation 23 times out of 34 regular season games, this despite starting the season in some sort of two man striker formation 10 out of the first 12 games of the season. He adjusted to what worked, and found how to motivate his people. He also incorporated mid-season moves such as the one that brought Marco Di Vaio to Montreal.
We have three years of data that says Robles probably a bit above average as a keeper in MLS. But he positions himself well and gets to the balls he should. His defense has played a big part over that time, with the distance per shot on goal is in the upper half of keepers, meaning that they don't get as close to his goal compared to other defenses. Some of that credit goes back to the keeper for keeping his backline organized.
One thing of concern their central defense, but they have options. Over the last few months the Red Bulls had Jhon Kennedy Hurtado in on trial, signed Andrew Jean-Baptiste, bought Ronald Zubar from Ligue 1 (though he may factor into the equation as a full back) and they still have Damien Perrinelle hanging around from last season. Not to mention Armando who was a starter last year and US U20 World Cup starter Matt Miazga.
This all seems like fine depth, but the question is who starts. It's kind of a mess of talent to sort out but it all has potential.
Out wide the club still retains Roy Miller on the left (#CostaRicanFullbacks, seriously why?) and Chris Duvall on the right. Lord only knows what they may do with Conor Lade and since surprisingly being cut by Montreal, Karl Ouimette has found his way to training camp too. Ouimette is likely anxious to find a spot with trying to prove himself worthy of continual call-ups to the Canadian National Team.
I love the Red Bulls midfield. Well, let me qualify that. I love the individuals that are projected to play in the midfield for the Red Bulls.
Felipe Martins 2012 season, under the guise of Marsch, was his best as a creator providing 7.44 expected assists over 2,300 minutes. The past few years with Montreal Martins has embraced the idea of taking more shots than creating them, with a his shot-to-key pass ratio steadily growing from a balanced 1.01 in 2012 to 1.38 in 2013 and then jumped in 2014 to 1.74, meaning he steadily took more shots than he created.
The question going forward is whether Martins will continue to be deployed centrally. The retirement of Henry and the lack of quality options have some wondering how positionally flexible Martins is and if he could and will be moved out wide.
There are other left midfielders on the roster and the job could still potentially go to either Ruben Bover or newly acquired Zizzo. Bover in his limited time has shown to be more of an attacking player looking for the shot (1.4 shot to key pass ratio), while Zizzo is a more rounded option (1.06 sh/kp ratio). Obviously Zizzo has much more experience but the talent comparison looks like a push overall.
Wide right you have Sam Lloyd, who have seemingly has been firmly planted, grown and matured in his three years with New York in his role. Lloyd primarily used as a facilitator (0.68 sh/kp ratio and 10.1 xA spread across 3800 minutes) will be looked upon to pick up some of the slack lost by Henry’s retirement.
Then of course there is Dax McCarty. Everybody loves Dax McCarty. But… I wish there was a rule to really explain this. The love and suffocating amount of “he’s so undervalued and unappreciated” has reached the point of diminishing returns. It’s like going to see a movie that’s a pretty good movie and the whole day before going to see it, you’re hearing about how AMAZING and FANTASTIC it is. When you watch it you can still like it and appreciate it but it’s like “Eh, okay, it was enjoyable.”
It’s the over hyping of an undervalued object or as I’m now coining it: The McCarty rule.
McCarty is not the best at his position but was an excellent find and was long undervalued. Now we all know and appreciate him for what he does, let’s be happy and move on…
Lastly we have Kljestan.
Look, I know we all “have an idea” about who we think he is as a player but I’ll put money on the fact that there is less than 10% of the soccer fanatics who have actually watched more than two or three Anderlecht games over a single season. Most often it’s people watching YouTube or Vine highlights of situations that exemplify the height of talent rather than having a more complete and contextually driven view of his performance.
This isn’t me poopooing analysis by guys that do their homework like Matt Doyle or even Noah Davis, but someone that wants to talk about his “creative ability”, “skills on the ball” or taking it a step further and talking about his leadership skills. This is either speculation and/or opinions based upon other opinions.
Now we can probably use a bit of logic to build on what little know. Brian Sciaretta, an amazing American soccer journalist, documented Kljestan's involvement in Anderlict’s 4-2-3-1 attack, saying he “played a deeper position." This is likely the same role that he is going to facilitate with Red Bulls and it’s probably a large reason why he was so important to them.
Also we can see that he’s played in 132 games over the last five seasons, averaging 26+ games a season for a club that plays between 30-46 games per season. He facilitates a pretty big role in playing over 50% of those matches for a team that has European aspirations on a yearly basis. He’s most likely of the quality to expect a designated player contract regardless of his affiliation and current standing with the US national team program.
We can go back and forth all day on whether or not Bradley Wright-Phillips production from last year is sustainable. I’ll just say this; in our four year data set, minimum 2500 minutes, only three other players have had a higher shot leverage (the average probability of a shot that correlates to position from goal. Simply put the higher, the better). If you consider his positioning and the fact that Henry only helped him created 25% of his plush 109 shots that finished sixth in the league, he’s still on pace for nearly three shots a game.
Using some (very) rough regression math where I remove key passes and shots made by Wright-Phillips that had direct influence of Henry, I still have approximately 18.55 total expected goals over 2500 minutes. Including BWP, there were over eight players that had over 18 expected goals last year and six in 2013. They don’t grow on trees.
Now this is assuming two things. First that shot leverage is a true indicator of talent and that it stabilizes. What we can say is that outside of direct service and participation on goals scored and created by Wright-Phillips, he was still a fantastic scorer last year.
This year it’s a question mark and while I personally believe he’ll succeed I don’t think we have any firm analysis that proves that theory. But there is plenty there that shows he was all that and a bag of chips in 2014.
The biggest issue here is a matter of depth. Peggy Luyindula is now 35 and will be 36 in May. I doubt they put much more than 1,000 minutes on his legs over the course of a season. So what is the back-up plan for if BWP gets injured or needs a match off? Mike Grella? No disrespect to Mr. Grella but I feel that's a rather wide talent gap. But I suppose we'll have to see.
New York is a very good team and their offseason additions have helped them stay there. Say what you want about how they went about it, they're as strong or maybe even stronger now than at the end of last season.
Their expected goals in even game states was sixth in MLS and that's pretty indicative of where we think they are in the grand schemes: in the upper half of the league. A playoff birth is the expected goal.
That said, there are a lot of variables with a lot of competition in the East. It could the Red Bulls finishing first in the Eastern Conference, or it could see them missing out on a playoff spot. That being said supporters probably have every right to expect their team will finish in the top three in the East.