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Crossing the Touchline: New York Red Bulls at Crew SC

What’s been going on with the Red Bulls this season?

MLS: New York Red Bulls at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls have started the 2018 Major League Soccer season brightly. New York’s original team comes to MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday with only one loss in the last six games. Unfortunately for Red Bull fans, that loss came last week to the New England Revolution.

New York currently sits in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, four points behind Columbus Crew SC but has three games in hand. The Red Bulls have retooled their team once again, but it’s familiar faces leading the team to success. Forward Bradley Wright-Phillips has nine goals on the season, tied with Crew SC’s Gyasi Zardes for second-best in MLS. Despite missing his first games in what seems like forever, goalkeeper Luis Robles has three shutouts on the year. Adding to the mix is midfielder Alejandro Romero Gamarra, better known as “Kaku,” who has provided a league-leading nine assists.

Ahead of the Black & Gold’s first meeting with New York, we turned to our friends at Once a Metro and spoke with managing editor Austin Fido to get a sense of what’s gone on with the Red Bulls so far in 2018.

Questions for Once a Metro

Massive Report: Given this is the first meeting of these two teams this season, talk some of the fans who don’t watch every MLS game through how the first 12 games of 2018 have gone for the Red Bulls, if you would. Are you pleased with the result so far?

Once a Metro: I think to answer that question, one has to look at the season to date as a whole: include the six CONCACAF Champions League games RBNY played during the first two months of the season, and the just-concluded opening bout in US Open Cup. That’s 19 games - and yes, I’m pleased so far.

Mostly, I’m pleased because the team has made a much better start to the year than it did in 2017. After 12 league games last season, RBNY had a losing record and seemed to be struggling to heal the self-inflicted wound created by the decision to trade away club captain Dax McCarty. This time around, the space vacated by the latest captain to be traded - Sacha Kljestan - has been swiftly and effectively filled by the team’s new six-million-dollar man, Kaku. And while he was settling in the team and not yet regarded as tried and tested starter, the Red Bulls put together a solid run to the semifinals of CCL; back in 2017, RBNY’s season-starting CCL campaign was a forgettable failure to get past Vancouver.

The Red Bulls have a winning record in the league, were competitive in CCL, and are still in USOC: that’s a much better start than last season, when USOC was just about the only reason one couldn’t conclusively say the team was in decline.

RBNY is not invincible - a point most recently proved by a 2-1 loss to New England in the last round of MLS games - but it does look to be better than it was this time last year, and that can only be encouraging.

The secret to the modest success of the last three months has been squad depth. The Red Bulls have spent much of the season to date shuffling the lineup to compensate for injuries, call-ups, and the need to keep senior players fresh for CCL. So too have many other teams in MLS, of course, but RBNY’s back-ups and prospects have produced more hits than misses when called upon in this campaign so far. Case in point: the team’s first league goal of the season was scored by 17-year-old (at the time) Ben Mines - and he hasn’t made a first-team appearance since. In mid-week, 19-year-old center-back Hassan Ndam made his first start for RBNY and helped keep David Villa and the rest of NYCFC off the scoreboard - and it will be no great surprise if he doesn’t feature again for the first team this season.

The Red Bulls seem to have depth to spare, and at the same time the first-choice players have been in impressive form. Off-season acquisition Tim Parker looks a natural fit with the RBNY system - and we’ve watched a lot of center-backs over the last few years who have struggled to make the adjustment to RalfBall. Kaku has four goals and nine assists in 14 appearances. Bradley Wright-Philips seemingly cannot stop scoring. Tyler Adams seems determined to play himself into a summer transfer to Europe. And results have been mostly good, whether the roster is fully fit and available or not.

The current round of international call-ups is testing the team’s depth again, and if the Red Bulls don’t beat the Crew it’ll be their third straight league game without a win. But I think we’ve seen enough over the last three months to be optimistic about RBNY’s prospects this season, regardless of what happens in Columbus.

MR: Both teams played in the Open Cup on Wednesday. How do you think that will impact what we will see on Saturday?

OaM: Seems like both teams used much the same approach: protect the legs of a lot of the first-choice starters. So I’m not expecting the events of USOC to have a great impact on this game for either side. That said, the primary reason Tyler Adams, Tim Parker, Kaku, and Amir Murillo didn’t play against NYCFC in the Cup is because they are not around to be selected: international call-ups have thinned the Red Bulls squad. Jesse Marsch couldn’t rest all his starters in midweek - he just doesn’t have enough players available at the moment. Nor would I have expected him to: USOC is a tournament in which RBNY would like to do well. So the combination of a somewhat depleted first-team roster and the club’s desire to compete on all fronts is likely to mean there are some heavy legs out there for the Red Bulls.

Nonetheless, BWP didn’t play a minute against NYCFC, and Marsch split time between his likely starting back four in Columbus: Aaron Long and Kemar Lawrence came out of the game in the second half and Aurelien Collin and Connor Lade stepped in. And the squad is not unfamiliar with the challenge of juggling league and Cup - if anything, it’s a problem the club will hope persists well into the summer. Marsch did his best to rotate and keep players fresh for Crew. We’ll soon see how well the plan has worked out.

MR: One of the chess matches between these two teams is always Gregg Berhalter’s possession style against Jesse March’s press. There’s been a mixture of results throughout the years, with both sides seeing success. How do you see that working on Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium?

OaM: I think it’s a chess match that strongly favors the home team, so I expect the Red Bulls to have their hands full. I remain haunted by the memory of the Crew’s opening goal of the 2015 playoff series between these sides: it was basically a set play from kick off, exploiting the preferred starting positioning and tendencies of the RBNY back line to open up a direct path to goal. The soccer equivalent of Fool’s Mate, if we’re continuing the chess metaphor.

Gregg Berhalter outwitted Marsch from the get-go in that match; if there are similar weaknesses in the Red Bulls’ formation this season, I suspect Berhalter has spent most of this week prepping his players to attack them.

The Red Bulls have had their own successes since, of course. But I think these sides have more in common than we might think: they have coaches who sweat the small stuff, and that pays dividends for them at home. Throw in the momentum of an eight-game unbeaten streak (in the league), and the fact the last Red Bull to score a game-winning goal in Columbus (Hi Mike - how’re things?) is now playing for the Crew: I’ll be surprised if RBNY even takes a point home from this match.

We will provide a link to Massive Report’s answers to Once a Metro’s questions once they are posted.