The MLS Cup playoffs begin this weekend. After a crazy season that featured a number of stops and starts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbus Crew finished third in the Eastern Conference and that means a a first-round postseason date with the sixth-seeded New York Red Bulls.
The Red Bulls finished the year 9-9-5 and with 32 points. It was an inconsistent season for New York but the team ended the year with just one loss in its final seven games.
To get a better sense of the Red Bulls and what they bring to MAPFRE Stadium for today’s postseason game, we reached out to SB Nation’s New York site, Once a Metro, and managing editor Ben Cork.
Questions for Once a Metro
Massive Report: When the Crew and the Red Bulls played at the MLS is Back Tournament earlier this season, it seemed like this might be a year of transition for New York. Yet here we are in the playoffs and RBNY is back in the postseason. What did this team do throughout the season to ensure another tip to the MLS Cup playoffs?
Once a Metro: It’s strange because the mood over the last two months here has been that this stretch of games was essentially preseason for 2021 as the club waited to install its new manager amidst the pandemic logistical issues. But then all of sudden you check the standings at the end of the year and we only lost one out of our last seven! A huge amount of credit has to go to interim manager Bradley Carnell, who approached his role sensibly and put the players in the best position to succeed rather than trying to reinvent the wheel tactically. The team is not the well-engineered pressing machine it’s been at points in the past, but Carnell has awoken the team from a couple years of muddled tactics under Chris Armas.
MR: A coaching change two days before the first playoff game seems unconventional. What was the thinking here and what do you know about Gerhard Struber and what he will bring to the team?
OAM: The installation of Struber this week was somewhat unexpected - even with his immigration paperwork and quarantining taken care of, I personally had figured the club would let Carnell handle the playoffs at this point. It’s hard to gauge whether a single week of training will be enough to have his ideas implanted in the squad, but Struber is known to be a strong adherent to the pressing tactics Red Bull is known for. He tends to deploy a diamond 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2, but with more quick combination passing rather than the long balls and hard runs that typically come with the pressing style.
MR: I already mentioned Nagbe and Zelarayan’s importance above. The other two I would say are Jonathan Mensah and Gyasi Zardes.
OAM: The Red Bulls have quietly replenished much of the roster this season, including some players who weren’t involved the last time they played Columbus. English midfielder Dru Yearwood is a new designated player signing with huge upside at only 20 years old and will likely feature in central midfield. Though he hasn’t featured as much in recent weeks, fullback Mandela Egbo is another English signing who has shown impressive flashes so far this year. And then many league fans will have heard of Caden Clark, the teenage attacking midfielder who burst onto the scene last month with goals in his first two senior matches. Brian White has additionally re-appeared in the lineup and is scoring, but as usual for the Red Bulls of recent years, the key men are defenders Aaron Long and Tim Parker, midfield captain Sean Davis, and creative attackers Kaku and Daniel Royer.
To read Massive Report’s answers to Once a Metro’s questions, click here.