For two straight seasons, the New York Red Bulls have been the kings of the Eastern Conference, at least in the regular season. But after another playoff failure, NYRB made some changes.
It’s been a mixed bag of results so far. The Red Bulls sit fifth in the East through seven games with a 3-3-1 record.
Columbus Crew SC currently are positioned where New York wants to be, at the top of the East. Having also played seven games, the Black & Gold have one more win and one fewer loss.
Saturday’s matchup between the two sides should be a good one as Crew SC won’t back down on the road and NYRB are unbeaten at home following a formational change and a 2-0 win over rivals D.C. United last week.
Questions for Once a Metro
Massive Report: So that 4-2-2-2, it didn't work, right? What was wrong with it and does last week's change back to the 4-2-3-1 indicate a permanent change?
Once a Metro: It worked a little better than when they tried it last year: we're not 1-6. But last year's experiment seemed dependent on Gonzalo Veron, and the team dug itself an uncomfortably deep hole and had to refocus on digging itself out of it. This time around, the switch has been flicked back to 4-2-3-1 a little earlier (in my opinion; there are those who make a convincing argument the 2016 switch back was a lot earlier than conventional wisdom suggests), which surprised me because it seemed the team had invested more in making the 4-2-2-2 work this year.
Fredrik Gulbrandsen came over from Salzburg with - it can be assumed - a familiarity with what is sort of the default Red Bull Global Soccer system. I think Daniel Royer was signed with the assumption he'd adapt well to 4-2-2-2 when required. Obviously, the team didn't plan on having Veron and Mike Grella out for most of the start of the year. But I thought - and I think RBNY thought - there was sufficient depth on the roster to compensate for Veron going down again. And it would appear there wasn't.
That said, even a fit and effective Veron might not compensate for the real issues with the 4-2-2-2, which for me are that it neutralizes the team's attacking strengths. It encourages the team to play narrow and opponents get that, so the middle of the field gets clogged very quickly. That's not the best situation for Sacha Kljestan, who thrives in space, not in traffic. It also asks BWP to play back-to-goal or deep as often as it wants him up front - and when he is up front, facing the goal, he's often in a cluster of defenders without any great momentum or space to run into. Nor does the team really seem to have the full backs required to make the system work. At his absolute best, Kemar Lawrence can do it; I think between them, Sal Zizzo and Connor Lade might add up to what the system wants, but playing two right backs is probably a step too far. And the d-mids seem too often to fail to realize their role when the full backs are advanced. Put that all together and you get a team that struggles to score, is frequently coughing up the ball in the final third, and is leaving a lot of space at the back.
In general, the Red Bull philosophy - RalfBall, as we like to call it at OaM - isn't too worried about giving up the occasional counter-attack. But giving up constant counters without getting many goals in return for it...I think the team just accepted it's not working at the moment.
I don't think it's gone forever. Seemed to me the team switched into it late in the last game. And there are too many players in the squad who appear to owe their place to an understanding of that system. NYRB II got a lot closer to playing it well more often last year than RBNY ever did, and Aaron Long, Tyler Adams, and Derrick Etienne were all key players for the 2016 II team. But it also seems clear there has been a decision taken to get back to what the current senior players know they can do well. Sacha Kljestan has been quite open about his approval of the switch back, and I'd guess his apparent greater comfort in the 4-2-3-1 is a big part of the return to it. BWP looks more effective too, though he insists he's happy playing whatever way he's asked to play.
I don't think it's a permanent change (unless Leipzig and Salzburg conclusively move on to something else), but I'm guessing the idea that the team would prioritize making the 4-2-2-2 work has been abandoned. The players probably prefer winning. The fans certainly do. My sense is that the 4-2-2-2 is a bench player for the moment: it'll have to prove itself in short bursts before it's trusted with a start again.
MR: Dax McCarty was obviously a big part of the team's success. Has a replacement been found for the midfielder? If so, who? If not, what can the team do to fill that void?
OaM: I think it was BWP who said Dax can't be replaced - and I'd agree: his combination of ability, experience and leadership is unique to him. But the club's thinking was it had Sean Davis ready to step up, and if not him then Tyler Adams might step forward, and if not him...well, Dan Metzger and Arun Basuljevic are on the roster too.
This was supposed to be Davis' year - and it might yet be, but he lost his place during the recent struggles to get the 4-2-2-2 running, and Adams hasn't done anything to suggest he ought to be sent back to the subs bench. If (more likely, when) Adams heads off to the U-20 World Cup, expect Davis to get another shot at the start.
The answer to the "who replaces Dax?" question is either Davis or Adams, or a combination of the two. Neither is a direct replacement, but RBNY is hoping they'll at least render the question irrelevant: they're exciting and capable players in their own right. I don't think the Red Bulls let Dax go because they thought they'd be better in midfield without him, rather they thought they'd be effective in a different way. If he's ever allowed to show it, Davis has impressive passing range and vision, and he could be a high-scoring midfielder in the right system. Adams openly admires Leipzig's midfield dynamo Naby Keita. I'm not sure he has either Keita's attacking ability or his physical gifts, but I am also sure that I haven't the faintest idea what Keita looked like as a player at 18.
Let Adams or Davis play to their particular strengths (as Dax was allowed to) and they can be, at worst, adequate for RBNY - more likely, good enough to help the team win what it wants to win; best case, exceptional. I don't think either of them is really the problem created by Dax's absence.
I'm persuaded by the argument that the void Dax left behind is not so much his spot as the effect he had on Felipe alongside him. Jesse Marsch clearly has a lot of faith in Felipe, and Felipe's post-match comments often sound like Marsch scripted them - so the feeling would appear to be mutual. But there are those, myself included, who find his positioning a little suspect. With a senior player like Dax next to him, some argue Felipe's worst impulses were more constrained. Even then, he found his way to places on the field that it seemed he probably ought not to be in. Now Felipe is the leader of the midfield pairing, and it sometimes looks like he's too quick to make executive decisions about where he should be or where he should go next. Until or unless the guy next to Felipe is functioning as, at least, his equal - and the pair is a true pair, with mutual understanding of responsibilities to each other and to the system - then I think we'll continue to see occasional terrifying lapses in the middle.
I remain haunted by a sequence from preseason, when Portland was able to launch a counter with one pass across the center circle to the left wing because there simply wasn't a Red Bull to be seen in the middle third of the field. That's where we will miss Dax until the replacements find their voice: he kept that sort of thing from happening, by force of personality, I suspect, as much as by his own ability.
MR: Another hot start to the year for Luis Robles. How vital is he for Red Bulls success and is he still a little underrated in this league?
OaM: He's essential: what else can you say about a guy who has played every minute of every league and playoff game since September 2012? RBNY is no longer the team that has never won a significant trophy; now it's the team that has never won a significant trophy without Luis Robles. We'll have to learn to live without him at some point, but hopefully not any time too soon. To say he's anything other than critical to the team's past and future success, you'd need some evidence it can be at its best without him - and there isn't any, unless you were blown away by the way RBNY played in a handful of US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League group stage games over the last few years. In which case, we'll have to agree to differ.
The part of me that is a fan of RBNY says he is absolutely underrated in MLS. The league likes to hype new or young players, or those it perceives as having developed within its ranks. Robles sidestepped MLS, learned to be a pro in Germany, and was almost forced into retirement by the league's own policies (that story everyone tells about his call to MLS head office to plead for a job overlooks the fact that RBNY was ready to offer him one earlier in the year, but was foiled by the allocation process). And he's only latterly got recognition by being exceptional: if he's not the MLS Ironman, does he get any attention at all? He's like BWP in that respect: it feels like there is acclaim for his achievements, but very little attention paid to the ability behind those achievements.
But with a slightly more objective approach to the question: he won MLS Save of the Year in 2014, 'Keeper of the Year in 2015, and was in the running for that award again in 2016. And he's back on the fringes of the USMNT squad. I'm not sure all of that adds up to underrated.
To read Once a Metro’s questions for Massive Report, checkout their 3 Questions.