By Coleman Larned (@thesoccerswell)
The 2016 season culminated in yet another MLS playoff exit for New York Red Bull. A furious pace was set in the regular season galloping towards playoffs and finishing second in the supporter's shield. But Jesse Marsch and RBNY came up short. The team identity was in place, the intended peak timing was set and the squad was healthy. But once again the cup rewarded opportunism over exacted intention.
The addition of Aurelian Collin and the internal promotion of Alex Muyl were the key additions to the squad that ended the season top of the Eastern Conference. Another season with the same core group allowed for Marsch's high, energetic press to steep and refine. After a miserable start to the campaign which saw them take three points from a possible 21, RBNY proceeded to lose only three more games all season.
The usual suspects were some of the league's best throughout the year. Bradley Wright-Phillips won golden boot on 62 fewer shots than the second place finisher, David Villa. Dax McCarty once again dictated one of the league's best offenses by averaging 68 passes per 90 minutes (fifth best in league for players who played at least half of the games in the regular season). The defense allowed the second fewest goals against in the Eastern Conference, allowing for the best goal differential in MLS. But it was the year of Sacha Kljestan in Harrison, NJ. While sporting a disconnected pirate goatee Kljestan connected phases of possession and controlled territory in the offensive third of the pitch better than anyone in MLS. He led the league in key passes (105), assists (16), and expected assists (9.97) while ranking second in total passes (1723) by an attacking midfielder.
With one, major bombshell of an outbound transfer, there hasn't been much compensatory movement to strengthen the squad.
Dax McCarty – The departure of captain McCarty leaves a hole in the locker room and the identity of RBNY on the pitch. Barring a complete overhaul of style, someone is going to have the shoulder the load in possession offensively, and in clean up duty in the middle of the park defensively.
Chris Duvall – Although Duvall has been in and out of the side, his athleticism allowed RBNY to stretch the opposition from both wings. Zizzo has taken over his rotation along the back four, but he is not a permanent option if RBNY want to be defensively resilient.
Nada. Nothing to see here. Carry on. Well, maybe some RBNY II players from their USL side: Aaron Long, Rafael Diaz, and Dan Metzger. Long is the only one of those three than can expect significant playing time.
Losing McCarty, planning for a more even distribution of goals scored, and evolving the team tactics all play into what Marsch will try to accomplish in 2017. Throughout preaseason a 4-2-2-2 and been heavily deployed and seems to be the favored formation entering the new season.
In an interview with MLS' Extra Time Radio, Marsch explained the perceived advantages of the formation: “I think more than anything we are tying to be more compact. We are trying to keep our team a little tighter and a little more difficult to play through. Having two strikers more than anything gives us more rotations to play through. It keeps our team a little bit more narrow, but that means it puts our team in a better position to counterpress. We try to create situations to press well, to counterpress well, allow us to control spaces on the field.”
Goalkeeper – Luis Robles is commander-in-chief and remains a rock in goal. After getting another shot with the USMNT, there is no competition for Robles at his club. Many consider him one of, if not the best GK in MLS and should continue to be the case.
Defenders – The backline will be one of the first signs of dipping into the rich well of USL talent RBNY has cultivated. Both Long and Justin Bilyeau should be pushing for first team minutes from the outset. Long will be looking to solidify a starting XI role before the season begins, to pair along Collin at CB.
Although the departure of Duvall through the expansion draft effected their depth at outside back, it seems to be a position that the club is willing to experiment in with youth and out of position trials. Between Kemar Lawrence, Zizzo, and Bilyeu to name in position candidates, they might get by on the flanks – CB is where they will struggle.
Midfielders – Can they replace Dax? Will they try to replace Dax? Enter Sean Davis. A lanky but substantial and surprisingly smooth surveyor of the pitch, the ex-Duke player has been groomed for this moment. It's unclear if the roles between Davis and Felipe will be defined, or even segregated. There were times in the McCarty-Felipe partnership where instead of intentional, positional definitions they would feel each other's movement and compensate accordingly. This will most likely be the case with Davis and Felipe, but that understanding takes time.
Kljestan willbe given a free, wide midfield role to affect the game how he sees fit. Although he will be assigned a wide role, what are formations anyway? Daniel Royer or Mike Grella will most likely compliment him on the opposite wing in midfield, compensating for his movement to balance the geometry of RBNY's shape. Designated Player Gonzalo Veron will get time in the midfield on a flank as well, depending on his initial production and specific opposition.
Forwards – Once again is will be the BWP show, but this time he will be more consistently accompanied by Veron. Although RBNY already press high, a dual forward system will allow them to more easily secure territory in the opposition's defensive third without the ball. Throughout preseason BWP still looks dangerous as long as he is near the goalmouth. He showed signs of dropping deeper into the midfield to get more involved in possession when he was being denied the ball. But, this is not where he is most effective. If RBNY are going to score anywhere near the amount of goals they have grown accustomed too, Veron and BWP need to say high and in dangerous positions.
It will be another tactically fascinating year for RBNY. In Marsch's search for the key that will unlock the MLS Cup puzzle, another iteration in shape and tweaks in intention have surfaced. This time he will have to do more with less while blooding RBNY's young brigade.
Success in 2017 resides in the playoffs. The identity and commitment are there from a foundational point of view for the club, now they have to go on a run at the right time while adding quality at the right time. If RBNY are going to make a run at MLS Cup they have to: get stronger along the back four at some point throughout the season, have a significant impact from Veron, be harder to break down centrally, and get goals more evenly distributed throughout the side.