When Daniel Royer’s diagnosis was delivered Tuesday evening, you could almost hear an audible sign of relief from New York Red Bulls fans. Royer’s recent run of form for the club has coincided with a midsummer revival the team desperately needed after a run of poor results.
Despite the good news after what looked at first like a serious injury, the Red Bulls still find themselves in a key moment of their season. The crux of their issue will be who will fill the shoes of the most prolific offensive threat on the roster of late, and how will they lineup in Royer’s absence? There are a few options for the Red Bulls to choose.
First, Jesse Marsch must figure out who will take Royer’s place in the lineup.
The obvious choice is Alex Muyl. Afterall, Muyl was inserted into the match against New York City FC this weekend after Royer’s injury. The return of Kemar Lawrence from CONCACAF Gold Cup pushed Muyl to the bench Sunday. With Royer missing time, Muyl is a familiar option for the team having played in 48 matches over the last two seasons, and starting 32 of those.
Jesse Marsch has championed Muyl’s work rate on a number of occasions, much to the chagrin of some of the Red Bull fanbase. Muyl is not the same type of player as Royer, though the two share plenty of the same attributes. Most importantly, Muyl has a nose for goal, spending much of his playing career as a forward, and has shown growth in his game this season.
Two other players who could make an impact from Royer’s vacated spot are Derrick Etienne Jr. and Gonzalo Veron. Veron has been appearing as a late game sub of late, and making the most of his opportunities, creating danger and even winning a match weeks ago against the New England Revolution.
The significance of the Red Bulls defeating the Revs at home can not be understated, and Veron was a large part of that effort. Working against Veron, for the time being, is Jesse Marsch’s notion that he prefers Gonzalo on the front line instead of the midfield.
While lacking the experience of both Muyl and Veron, Derrick Etienne Jr. is an intriguing possibility for Marsch to consider. His work with the New York Red Bulls II last season speaks to his ability as a fearless and creative player that can open space in the attacking third of the field using smart runs and savvy passing. His defensive work and first touch is a step behind Muyl and Veron, but his creativity would be a dangerous weapon moving forward.
The other question for Jesse Marsch and the Red Bulls is should they change their new look lineup in Royer’s absence? The answer is no.
While the shift in formation has benefited Daniel Royer, the success of the winger is largely due to the success of the midfield group behind him. In playing a withdrawn forward role, Royer’s role within the formation has changed significantly.
Last season, Royer was played as traditional wing player. His job was to stay wide and look to create chances by crossing or cutting inside. From the start of the season this year, Jesse Marsch looked to maximize Royer’s nose for goal by allowing him to pinch inside more regularly. Early season returns were spotty, due to the Red Bulls playing a 4-2-2-2 formation with Royer cutting inside but leaving a lot of room on the wing that opposing offences exploited.
The shift to the 3-6-1 formation the Red Bulls have embraced of late, plays more like a two striker formation. Royer’s natural spot to lineup in the new formation is tucked inside playing underneath Bradley Wright-Phillips. Because of the added numbers in the midfield, Royer is free to roam which has given the Red Bulls flexibility in the attacking third and create overloads and mismatches. Royer’s work can be extensively focused on the attack while the midfield players can press and create opportunities.
The Red Bulls recent run of form is in no small part thanks to the efforts of Sacha Kljestan, Felipe, Sean Davis, and Tyler Adams all playing together on the field at the same time. Midfield pressure can negate even potent attacks and the new formation keeps teams from simply spreading the Red Bulls through switching fields while looking for quick strikes.
Regardless of the personnel choices Marsch makes going forward, the questions the Red Bulls face that will cause them the most concern are along the backline. Royer’s absence will be felt relative to the results they obtain, but the team has the tools to hold down the fort until his return.