The New York Red Bulls finished up preseason with another solid performance, showing growth over their last three matches heading into the long MLS season.
The offseason started tumultuously, and the team seemed fated for mediocrity or misery. The loss of veteran leadership across the departing players, and a lack of big moves during the European transfer window, left fans feeling despair. After their performance in the 2020 Visit Tucson Sun Cup, fans should be able to breathe a slight sigh of relief. The sky does not appear to be falling just yet.
All is not lost, though undoubtedly the team could still use additional support by way of transfer. The change in formation from 4-2-3-1, to the ever maligned 4-2-2-2 has changed the complexion of the team. By doing so, simply decrying previous positional needs no longer suffices. Job specific responsibility changes suit certain players already on the roster in ways they did not previously.
“We’ll take many positives from the game,”, said head coach Chris Armas following the match. “Especially that we won. We stayed in a tough game, varied up some of our pressing, all out pressing to a midblock pressing, and it was interesting to see that each could be effective. Kansas City as good as they are, they can challenge both of those tactics. We’re young, but we are together, and today showed that in a big way…we thought we were able to create some chances, especially out of transition and we limited many of the big chances.”
Pressing proved a major concern in 2019. Teams began to exploit the Red Bulls reckless abandon form of high press by playing over, rather than through, the midfield. Try as they might, the 2019 version struggled to cope with the change. A major fail point came in midfield. Sean Davis, tasked with being a traditional central defensive midfielder, struggled to provide the proper bite in midfield. By pairing with Casseres Jr. for a stretch towards the end of last season, Davis looked more comfortable and put in better performances.
The match against SKC showed a similar comfort for the duo, and they received greater support from the rest of the field players by way of a more rigid structure of high press. The Red Bulls remain narrow, and still move as a unit when they press, but there is a new wrinkle added making a world of difference.
When the team loses possession, especially with the ball in the offensive third of the field, they employ a new approach. Rather than relentlessly pressing at the moment possession is lost, the team moves back into position, sets, then releases the press. While the result means the press does not start immediately, by organizing first, they increase their chances of winning long balls should teams play long, over the Red Bulls.
Winning second balls defined the Red Bulls success in 2018. Quickly transitioning into attack is wholly reliant on winning second balls effectively, and failing to win them in 2019 created additional stress on the Red Bulls backline. It is too early to tell if the strategy will work long term, but the early returns are promising.
Also promising? Guys that needed to step up in 2020 look ready to do so. The aforementioned Davis and Casseres Jr., but also Kyle Duncan and Tim Parker. Duncan came on strong to finish 2019, but struggled to show consistency at the start of the season following his ACL injury in 2018. Duncan’s performance against SKC signaled a return. Measured intervention, good use of body, and effective work moving forward. Duncan’s ascent makes Murillo’s loss less concerning.
Parker earned a big contract last season, but he failed to live up to his 2018 performances. His regression, like many players, came during the pressing struggles mentioned above. So far, in 2020, Parker looks like a player finding his groove once again.
Rookie Patrick Seagrist continues to impress as well, though he is still a step back from Kemar Lawrence. It is a long season, and the rookie will have a lot to prove. John Tolkin is waiting in the wings, and can spell the other newcomer occasionally throughout the season.
“We will leave with, of course, some work to do and we know that,” said Armas. “When you see Kyle Duncan play so well, Tim Parker step up, Sean Davis with a solid 90 minutes, Cristian [Casseres], you start looking around and a lot of guys having good performances. Understanding what we’re doing really starts to help, and you start piece things together. There’s always work to do, and this time of year, it’s always the case for sure, but we feel good with a week left going into our [opener].”
Are the Red Bulls ready to rebound in 2020? It is still too early to tell, but early signs lean closer to yes then they did a month ago.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography