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Crossing the Touchline: Crew SC at New York Red Bulls

How are things going in the Big Apple (or near it)?

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a good season for the New York Red Bulls, Saturday night’s Columbus Crew SC opponent. New York’s original Major League Soccer franchise sits in third place in the Eastern Conference on 41 points. The team is led by head coach Chris Armas — who took over for the departed Jesse Marsch — off the field and on the field by Bradley Wright-Phillips, who recently became the fastest MLS player to 100 goals.

Those are the basics. But what about digging deeper? That’s what we did with Austin Fido, managing editor of Once A Metro. We wanted to know a little bit more about how 2018 is going for the Red Bulls to get a better sense of what to expect from Saturday night’s meeting.

Questions for Once A Metro

Massive Report: The Red Bulls have gone through a coaching change this year -- one not due to poor form -- with Jesse Marsch leaving to take an assistant job at RB Leipzig. Has there been much of a change since Chris Armas took over or are things following along the same path?

Once A Metro: For now, the path remains the same, but it would appear Armas has adjusted RBNY’s stride a little. At least, that’s my impression from the four games that have been played since Jesse skipped off to Germany and Chris took over. And since it’s only been four games, any further comment should be prefaced by the caveat that I think everyone watching RBNY for evidence of change or no change is seeing what they want to see right now - it’s not easy to say what part of what we’ve watched so far is really down to Chris Armas being in charge as opposed to just a reaction to circumstance. But if you’re in the business of talking about RBNY, it’s your job to say something, so we’re all giving it a go - for better or for worse.

At the moment, Armas ought to be amused by how quickly everyone chattering about RBNY is making up and changing their minds. After his first game in charge, the 1-0 loss to NYCFC, the basic story was that Armas might be Hans Backe in disguise. The substitution-averse Swede would have been proud of what looked like a reversion to the tactics of RBNY’s 2010-2012 era: if Plan A doesn’t work, just keep trying Plan A. For reasons that didn’t fill one with confidence (Armas essentially said he had thought the team was doing OK until it wasn’t), the new head coach kept his starting lineup on the field until NYCFC scored in the 85th minute, at which point he remembered he could throw a sub into the mix. Too little, too late and fans started dusting off the Hans Backe song book.

But in the very next game, at home against Sporting KC, Armas did make timely substitutions and got two of the finest goals ever seen at Red Bull Arena out of second-half sub Marc Rzatkowski, who flipped a 2-1 loss into a 3-2 win. Next up was a 2-0 win over New England that saw both sides slap at each other ineffectually for the first 45 minutes before RBNY pulled away in the second half. So after those two games the thought was that Armas wants his team to start a little slower than it did under Jesse Marsch, consciously absorbing pressure and waiting for a second-half surge, at which point keeping up with full-tilt RalfBall is too much for most opponents.

There may be some truth to that theory, and Armas has talked about wanting the team to hold onto possession more than it had done previously. But RBNY’s last outing was a 1-0 win over DCU in which BWP scored in the second minute. So right now it feels like Armas might just be teasing us all. We say he doesn’t know how to make subs: his subs win the next game. We say his team starts off slow, and then we watch the Red Bulls coax three points out of a quick goal in the opening exchanges.

For the most part, this is the same team playing the same way it did when Jesse Marsch was on the sidelines. Chris Armas is a different person, but he’s coaching in the same system and I don’t think we’ve seen enough of him to conclusively say where he differs significantly from Marsch’s favored variations on the RalfBall theme. That said, it does seem like Tyler Adams is playing with more attacking freedom than he was under Marsch, and it does appear that Armas doesn’t have quite the same favorites as his predecessor. Somewhere in those details is likely where we’ll find the difference between RBNY under Armas versus the team under Marsch.

But it’s early days and really all that matters is that our new head coach has a three-game winning streak under his belt - long may it continue.

MR: Even the most casual MLS fan knows about Bradley Wright-Phillips, now the fastest player to get to 100 goals in his MLS career. But who else in the attack should Black & Gold fans pay attention to in this game?

OAM: Danny Royer scored 12 league goals last year, but he’s only got five so far in the regular season in 2018 - he’s overdue for a hot streak in front of goal. Also, as mentioned above, Armas seems to want Tyler Adams more involved up front, and if that persists then I’d expect we’ll see Adams on the score-sheet more regularly. And, of course, our big off-season signing - Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra - has been sensational: three goals and 13 (!) assists in 17 league games.

MR: Maybe a topic that should be talked about more is the Red Bulls’ defense this year, which is the best in MLS. What has made this group so good in 2018 and how can that be an impact when we start talking postseason?

OAM: The obvious answer to what has improved the defense this year is the thing that wasn’t there last year: Tim Parker. He deserves a lot of credit, not just for his individual ability but because his arrival brought very little disruption to the back line’s primary strength - the chemistry that develops when a group of players have been together for a while. Somehow, Parker has never stuck out as the new guy at the back. There must have been some adjustment issues for him, but I guess his teammates have done a very good job of covering for his weaknesses while he played to his strengths and got himself fully settled in a new system.

Now the biggest question about the back line is whether it’s still intact for the playoffs. There is quiet but persistent chatter about Amir Murillo being whisked off to Europe this summer, and an injury to any of the presumptive starting defenders - Murillo, Parker, Aaron Long, and Kemar Lawrence - would raise questions about the roster’s depth and its ability to cope with a long term absentee at the back.

There is both talent and experience in reserve, but the four established starters - and captain Luis Robles, of course - have been the not-really-a-secret to RBNY’s success this season. It’s not a certainty that any of them can be adequately replaced from within the squad for the long term, though the players on the bench would surely like the chance to prove otherwise.

As it happens, Lawrence is thought to be running out his contract and unlikely to return for next season. RBNY was able to sign Parker because he couldn’t get the contract he wanted from Vancouver, and there’s no guarantee the Red Bulls can give it to him either (there have been whispers that MLS is standing in the way of the new deal Parker very obviously deserves)- so he could slip away in the off-season. And Murillo looks more likely than not to play his way to a transfer abroad in the not-too distant future. So the time is now for this back line. They’ve gelled quickly and well over the first half of the season, and been well-supported by their back-ups. And they seem to have pretty clear incentive to keep their performance levels up for the rest of this campaign: it’s unlikely they’ll all be back with RBNY for 2019.

To read Massive Report’s answers to Once A Metro’s questions, head over to their Three Questions story