By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
Despite winning the Supporters’ Shield, 2018 was a bit of a letdown for the Red Bulls. Still, more trophies are on the table in 2019 if they’re able to take the next step.
2018 in review
Most everyone is going to focus upon the fact the Red Bulls left opportunities on the table last year. It’s basic to the human experience to dwell on what you didn’t accomplish, how you fell short, and the pain that exists rather than the achievements and success.
2018 was a year in which the Red Bulls had a legit chance to take a shot at winning every trophy available to a North American team. But they fell short in the steps leading up to each opportunity, except for one. First they fell to Chivas Guadalajara in the Champions League semifinals one to nothing, then they lost in the round of 16 to the Philadelphia Union two to one in the US Open Cup, and finally they were beat by Atlanta over two legs in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Despite all those failings, it might surprise you to learn the Red Bulls not only won the Supporters Shield but also broke the record for most points in a season. They were immensely successful and had the fifth best team expected goal differential in ASA’s dataset, back to 2011.
Being able to do what they did is a spectacular feat considering the coaching change of Jesse Marsch to Chris Armas midway through the season. Most clubs would falter even in a small way through such a change, but the Red Bulls actually got the tiniest bit better.
Sure, their goal differential went down slightly but by most underlying measurements they were improved. They had a better expected goal differential, better expected passing rates, and more defensive actions and forced turnovers in the attacking half of the pitch.
|March 1st to July1st (Jesse Marsch)||July 2nd to October 28th (Chris Armas)|
They had a slight identity crisis during the playoffs when Armas was out maneuvered by Tata Martino, his seamless takeover of the team was no small feat. Martino’s shown time and time again to be an elite manager. So, Armas did he what he should have and shook hands and went go back to the drawing board. He didn’t need to change everything up, but he needed to put a tweak on things and make them a better version of what they do.
Last year was a great year for the Red Bulls, they got silverware and maintained their eligibility in the CONCACAF Champions League, and now once more they have the opportunity to claim every North American trophy available to them.
Offseason Roster Changes
M - Tyler Adams (transferred to RB Leipzig)
D - Aurelien Collin (option declined)
D - Ethan Kutler (option declined)
D - Kevin Politz (option declined)
F - Carlos Rivas (option declined)
D - Fidel Escobar (loan expired)
D - Tommy Redding (out of contract)
D - Hassan Ndam (Expansion Draft)
First and foremost, the loss of Tyler Adams isn’t small. The Red Bulls are iconic for the high press that they do better than any other team. Of the players who have been the most reliable at winning possession back, Tyler Adams slides easily into the top five, making it easiest to affirm Adams’ ball winning ability. We could see it in long stretches of him chasing and applying pressure and we see it in the data.
There are a lot of things Tyler Adams did well beyond ball winning, and it’s a bit difficult to articulate what his replacement is going to have to accomplish in order for them to have continued success. But from a tactical standpoint we know the baseline is his replacement will have to apply pressure and move the ball forward in the attack.
The losses of Aurelien Collin and Fidel Escobar aren’t nothing, but their impact applies only to the depth of the squad, and if there is one thing the Red Bulls have in an abundance (besides defensive actions), it’s depth.
M - Jean-Christophe Koffi (Homegrown)
D - Amro Tarek (trade from Orlando)
M - Marcus Epps (Waiver Draft)
M - Omir Fernandez (Homegrown)
F - Mathias Jorgensen (transfer from Odense Boldklub)
D - Sean Nealis (SuperDraft)
Matt Doyle’s sentence to describe the 2019 Red Bulls on the ExtraTime Radio podcast was “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” And it’s 100% true. The additions of Jean-Christophe Koffi and Omir Fernandez are youthful players who will challenge for time and possibly even contend for first team spots.
Marcus Epps, a former Philadelphia Union first round pick, will also add to the wing depth, something desperately needed over the last couple years especially with some of the injuries they’ve picked up. Amro Tarek and Sean Nealis both will provide solid depth at centerback as 3rd and 4th in the depth chart respectively.
The thing is, this team is also getting two players back from significant injury in 2018 who could further complicate the team’s line-up choices. Kyle Duncan is a right back who could press Michael Murillo for the starting job. Florian Valot could be a diamond in the rough will likely serve as one of the first options off the bench for anything from central midfield to the wings.
Lastly, there is Mathias Jorgensen, the young Danish striker they purchased for seven figures. The reality is I don’t have any more insight on than what has been written about by those who follow the Red Bulls--which isn’t much.
Also, we don’t know much about him because, at 18 years old, there isn’t much to know from the professional accomplishment and data standpoint. The Red Bulls’ scouting network is one of the most extensive in the world, and if they invested in him and think he’s going to be someone, then they probably know better than us.
Luis Robles is the captain and one of the longest running starters in this league. Obviously he’s got the job pretty well nailed down. He’ll be backed up by Ryan Meara with Evan Louro playing the third string keeper.
Tim Parker was traded to the Red Bulls last year and let’s not act as if he everyone knew how good he was. The Red Bulls gave up significant resources to obtain him from Vancouver and while it’s fine and fair to say it was an exciting move for the Red Bulls it also wasn’t a sure thing. That said, Parker was spectacular and by joining with Aaron Long formed perhaps the best centerback duo in the league.
Aaron Long’s transformation and blossoming into not just a good centerback but one of the league's best has been unreal. I don’t think you can lay it at the feet of the Red Bulls either. Long has done a lot of work and it continues to show. He took yet another step forward last year. Both he and his partner, Parker, ranked in the top five in total aerial duels won. When you have a high press you need centerbacks who can win those long passes played over the midfield, and both did a fantastic job.
Amro Tarek, despite what you might have thought from his watching Orlando’s backline last year, is a pretty good defender. He represented Egypt in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament and was on their preliminary World Cup roster. He has some quality, and under the Red Bull system might be able to show it more consistently.
Sean Nealis is quickly becoming a favorite of mine because he represents in a lot of ways what I still hold dear about the MLS Superdraft. Get beyond the glitz and glamor of it all. Look beyond the draft speeches and even past the hyperbole of what these guys can become. You have guys like Nealis who can come in as a late second round pick and be solid depth on good teams at a reasonable cap hit.
Nealis is 6’4 out of Hofstra University, and is a local guy who had great mentorship at college. Will he have the ceiling of some of the young guys in New York’s academy? Probably not, but he comes in ahead of those guys because he’s ready now.
He joins the team because of how engaged the organization is in their local soccer community. It’s true MLS Superdraft can and probably should be reworked to fit the new age of MLS, but until it does teams like New York with a larger scouting network have an advantage over teams which either can’t or simply don’t put forth the level of effort needed to identify MLS ready talent. It looks like Nealis is an example of that advantage.
Out on the right flank it will be Michael Murillo, but it’s unclear how long will he be around. The 23-year old Panamanian is among the young Red Bulls who have continued to progress and taken steps forward. His ability hasn’t gone unnoticed, and rumors abound that he could be headed overseas.
But the theme of the Red Bulls has been “next Red Bull up” and Kyle Duncan, even at 21 and losing a year with a knee injury, seems near ready to take that step. He provided great depth through their CCL run last year and projects to be another in a growing line of successful academy players.
On the left flank it will likely be Connor Lade early on. The injury to Kemar Lawrence last year during the playoffs has him a bit behind the pace of being 90 minutes fit, though he did play 45 minutes in their CCL victory last week. As soon as he’s ready, I imagine Lawrence will take back the job as he showed the potential to be the best left back in the league at times on both sides of the ball last season.
Marcus Epps will inject a bit of speed late in games and give Chris Armas some additional depth. But he probably won’t challenge for many minutes due to the growing and numerous depth the team now has at the position.
Derrick Etienne Jr. has continued to grow as an attacker and could very well steal more minutes from Daniel Royer on the left side of the field. But the question remains if can he provide the two-way ability the Red Bulls’ system requires.
His ability to play both offense and defense is why Royer continues to excel in the spot for Armas. His engine is a great one on a team with many engines. He runs and runs hard on both sides of the ball, which sometimes helps cover up his lack of technical skills.
In almost the exact same vein is Alex Muyl, who is also successful from an underlying metrics perspective. He lacks some creativity but when it comes to applying high pressure and turning balls won in the attacking half into goal chances, there might not be a better player in the league.
His expected assists per 96 minutes finished tied for first with Romain Alessandrini, and Muyl fuels his expected numbers through high leverage attempts which he often feeds to Bradley Wright-Phillips quickly after forced turnovers.
The problem with Muyl is often the same thing as with Royer. He lacks a good touch on the ball, and he’s not especially creative. Outside of “trying really hard” he doesn’t have really have a single trait above average. But because of the system both the Red Bulls and Muyl can thrive on their chaotic playstyle.
Omir Fernandez is another young and up and comer from the Red Bulls’ academy ranks who could challenge Muyl for minutes. If he can show his ability in the press there is a chance he challenges for minutes this year.
Ben Mines, another homegrown player, will provide depth and a spark from time to time. But his place in the weekly 18 isn’t here yet. It’s possible by the end of the year he could make a case for being more involved.
Lastly there is Florian Valot, who is returning from. His high intensity play showed use both on the wings, working with Muyl, and also in the central midfield. I’m sure he’ll feature as one of the first off the bench for Armas and could even find himself in the starting lineup ocassionally.
The central midfield will include Kaku, the creative and dynamic playmaker who tried to make a move to Liga MX and Club América. But he will be back, at least for one more season. There is also the unsung Sean Davis, who continues to be a solid central midfielder doing all the little things to make the Red Bull’s tactics work. Don’t be deceived by the lack of Sean Davis mentions in this article. I’m a huge fan of what he does.
Backing up Kaku will be Andreas Ivan, who has shown himself to be more of an advanced midfielder or even a false nine. Still, I don’t think he’ll be much more than a fill-in type.
The real question is who fills the Tyler Adams’ role. It could be the experienced Marc Rzatkowski who played a vital role last year as the third central midfield and did a pretty solid job. But the word is it could end up being the young Venezuelan Cristian Cásseres Jr.
Cásseres had a really good showing for both his U17 and U20 international squad this last two years. Additionally, his performances at Red Bulls II last year were what helped push his team to the USL conference finals. The other potential piece, along with Cásseres, will be the home grown Jean-Christophe Koffi, who was signed in September last year and has a lot of buzz around him.
I would love to say something witty about Bradley Wright-Phillips and big games but it’s already kind of been memed out. He’s a weird case of being both dominant and well known, yet undervalued for what he does.
BWP is going to continue to be awesome, at least in the short term. The last few months of the season he was still in the top-10 in accumulated xG and just outside the top 10 (11th) in xG per 96. It would be surprising for this to be the year Bradley Wright-Phillips fails to live up to what he’s consistently done over the last four years for NYRB.
But time is slowly creeping forward and the addition of Mathias Jørgensen obviously indicates the organization is trying to start to prepare for it. Over the last few years the Red Bulls haven’t had a lot of Plan B options which have worked out when BWP can’t go. The addition of Jørgensen is obviously a means to try and build something for the future.
Brian White last year was both interesting and useful in attacking sense in his limited run out. He clearly has yet to distinctly become the second option behind number 99. Last year there were moments suited towards Anatole Abang’s skillset, but between being on loan and running into various off field issues, he’s not been available to take advantage of the opportunities which have come.
Frantic, chaotic and all-together uncomfortable is the style applied by the organization of the Red Bulls. While it does tend to be something of a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3/4-5-1, those positions often shift around. The left wing may push forward and towards the middle, becoming more of a second striker.
The fullbacks can push forward on opposite sides to provide more width, or even provide more traffic centrally. The approach is flexible and it’s purely about making the opponent do the thing least want to, while winning the ball high up the field to create high leverage opportunities from those turnovers.
It manifests itself in a lot of ways, and under Chris Armas it’s evolved from what it was under Jesse Marsch. They’ve tried to be more dynamic and even add a few other tools to their tool belt. But at the core, it’s fast paced with high pressure.
There is no reason why the Red Bulls shouldn’t make a run at the CONCACAF Champions League final, the US Open Cup, MLS Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup. However their best and most realistic silverware is the Supporters’ Shield. Right now they’re easily one of the best and deepest teams in the league, which makes that trophy the most attainable.
They still may also make a play for either CCL or MLS Cup. But it will be more difficult and the results on a micro-level leave a lot more to chance. No team should realistically expect to win a trophy, but there is a reasonable expectation they should be in the hunt and have a very good shot at winning one and even multiple trophies in 2019.