Columbus Crew SC is at the top of Group E of the MLS is Back Tournament at last Saturday’s 4-0 against FC Cincinnati. But on Thursday night, the challenge ramps up against the New York Red Bulls, who also won their first game against Atlanta United, 1-0.
Ahead of the game against the Red Bulls, we reached out to our friends at Once a Metro and managing editor Ben Cork to get a better perspective on New York
Questions for Once a Metro
Massive Report: Watching the Red Bulls early on in the season and then again against Atlanta United, it’s obvious that there’s been plenty of turnover from the team that contended for Supporters’ Shields year after year. For Crew fans who haven’t followed all that’s changed for the team personnel-wise, could you take us through some of the key newish names the Black & Gold will need to be on the lookout for?
Once a Metro: Well much of the focus in Red Bulls land has been on the players who have left - namely Bradley Wright-Phillips, Luis Robles, Kemar Lawrence, and Michael Amir Murillo. Just two years after setting the league’s regular season points record, the spine of that team has been largely picked apart.
While there have been several new faces brought in this year, it remains to be seen which ones will be more important especially at this early stage of the squad’s rebuilding. Rookie left back Patrick Seagrist struggled in the opening matches in March as has been replaced by new French signing Jason Pendant, while Mandela Egbo is another fullback brought in though he is yet to see minutes. Youngsters such as Chris Lema and Jared Stroud have been brought in to add depth, while an internal personnel shift happened this week when veteran center back Tim Parker was benched for Egyptian Amro Tarek who was a major part of the team’s clean sheet on Saturday.
But arguably the most important “new face” for RBNY this year is longtime Red Bull Florian Valot, the crafty attacking midfielder who missed most of the last two years to knee injuries. Valot’s goal was the difference maker against Atlanta on Saturday, and he is always a key part of the team’s success whenever fit.
MR: While the players changed, the system seems to stay the same. Chris Armas, it appears, has carried over that pressing style of the Red Bulls we became so familiar with under Jesse Marsch. Is this the exact same system under Armas or are their tweaks? How do the changes in personnel mentioned above impact the system, if at all?
OaM: Debate has raged ever since Armas being given the reigns to the team over whether he has maintained the “energy drink soccer” principles of his colleague/predecessor Jesse Marsch. Armas himself stated upon taking the job that he was interested in making the team more deliberate and possession-oriented with the ball, but what has played out in the two years since has appeared more to be a muddled, compromised version of the extremist vertical system instilled by Marsch rather than a sophisticated improvement on it.
However Saturday night saw the team not only engage in its most dogged pressing in some time, but also shift to a deeper, more counter-attacking style in the face of the high numbers Atlanta sent forward. While still not the high-octane pressing monster engineered by Marsch, any sort of tactical coherency is welcomed by Red Bull fans after a confusing 2019 campaign. A key figure to watch tactically is midfield playmaker Kaku, who has been frustrated when used at times in a more static wing role under Armas - Kaku’s movement and decision-making on and off the ball in transition moments is always key to any success RBNY has.
MR: Including the first MLS is Back game, RBNY is 2-0-1. What have you learned about this team early on in 2020? Are expectations still where they were heading into the season?
OaM: There is some optimism and pride creeping back into the Red Bulls ecosystem. After standards slipped in a messy 2019, the squad has been reshuffled and a new sporting chief has been hired in Kevin Thelwell, formerly of Wolverhampton Wanderers. While many Red Bull fans would find it morbidly comical to have their first “cup” win be in such unusual circumstances, the performance against Atlanta Saturday was highly encouraging and the squad looks fresh and energized enough to not just settle scores against rivals but make a serious run for silverware.