Identity is the Key: The New York Red Bulls 2018 Season Preview

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photo by Bill Twomey Photography

The New York Red Bulls start 2018 much different than 2017. While they traded their captain, midfielder Sacha Kljestan, and continue to transition their roster to feature a homegrown core, they made a few moves that invigorated the roster a bit, while still keeping to the overall philosophy of youth development.

How they did in 2017

In short, 2017 became a year of transition for New York.

The Red Bulls snuck into the playoffs with a record of 14-12-8. That record included an atrocious 5-10-2 road record and 47 goals against. Additionally, the club’s goal production dropped to 53 tallies (as compared to 2016’s 61).

While they excelled in the wild card match vs. Chicago Fire, Toronto FC was too much to handle. Plagued by mistakes and disappearances from crucial players, Toronto eliminated New York on their way to winning their first MLS Cup.

Additionally, the Red Bulls made it to the US Open Cup final only to suffer some poor performances from key players.

Mostly, 2017 was a forgettable year for NewYork. A rash of injuries tested New York’s depth. Their scoring production was down. While other teams around them got better, the Red Bulls slipped a bit. However, the emergence of midfielder Tyler Adams and the development of Aaron Long left their mark on the season.

What They Did About It

Head Coach Jesse Marsch and Sporting Director Denis Hamlett went to work almost immediately upon New York’s exit from the playoffs. Rumors swirled about who was staying and who was going. The first move was releasing some of the aging players – For example, CB Damien Perinelle was among those who were identified to no longer fit the system.  The second, and possibly the most notable, was the trade of Sacha Kljestan to Orlando City SC for Carlos Rivas, and defender Tommy Redding. At first blush, the move did not seem like an equal return. However, based on Kljestan’s comments after the trade, it was apparent that Kljestan also no longer fit New York’s vision.

Gone also are Designated Player Gonzalo Veron and local guy Mike Grella. Grella spent most of 2018 struggling with injury and Veron never really showed the soccer IQ that Marsch expected. Those issues made Grella expendable and Veron underwhelming.

The Red Bulls also made a splash by signing Alejandro Romero Gamarra, otherwise known as Kaku. Gamarra will likely be called upon to create plays to unleash Bradley Wright-Phillips and Daniel Royer. “We knew that there were some things that were going to happen. Some things we wish would have happened sooner. But we’ve worked really hard in the off-season. We think we’ve made some great additions to a foundation we already have. We’re really excited for this year,” Marsch said.

Along with Kaku, the Red Bulls will also rely on the continued development of Alex Muyl, Sean Davis, and Tyler Adams. New York successfully doubled down on their identity – they got younger and faster in the offseason. They recommitted to the players they’ve grown from within. Marsch talked a bit about that identity. “There’s a really strong foundation here. So much of it is built on identity. There is no confusion in our club, in our team, in our academy what Red Bull is right now. And that can’t be underestimated. Identity is key.”

Oh, One More Thing

It’s become almost a regular theme around the Red Bulls organization. Marsch has declared that the chip has returned. The chip he’s referring to is the one that drove them to the 2015 Supporter’s Shield and made them favorites to reach MLS Cup finals that season. It’s the chip that made them so dangerous.

That underdog attitude coupled with the apparent joy Kaku seems to bring to New York, the Red Bulls could be a dark horse. Marsch acknowledged the lack of “big” names. “Almost every year in some way shape or form been underestimated. Sometimes it puts a chip on our shoulder – Just because we don’t have the massive names, that we’re not as good a team as some others. We have an opportunity every game day to prove what we’re about. We have a group that has embraced that in a big way in past years and will again this year. I like being the underdog.”

In Conclusion

Time will tell if New York’s commitment to their system will be a boon or a bear. New York has hardly had gas left in the tank and seems to disappear in big matches perpetually. The high press continues to be challenging across multiple competitions. While Marsch is the first coach in club history to begin a fourth season, it’s unclear how much patience Red Bull GmbH has.

One thing is clear, so far they are committed to Marsch and his vision with one focus point being player development. The big question is whether that commitment will garner silverware that has eluded New York for its entire history. Newly anointed captain Luis Robles made a point on Media Day. “I really believe in where this club is going. We’re hoping that this is the year, that in 2018 we’ve found the right mix of international flavor, players that have been around the league for a while, and the innovative, ambitious, hungry player that’s going to come in and be a real difference maker. I feel really good about our group.”

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