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SBI MLS Season Preview: New York Red Bulls

Photo by Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports
Photo by Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports

The New York Red Bulls ended the 2016 regular season on a 20-match unbeaten streak to win the Eastern Conference title. What followed was a playoff exodus in the conference semi-finals to the Montreal Impact, a collapse in the post-season that resulted in complex emotions and a recalcitrant group of athletes and coaches.

“I couldn’t believe that we fell so short of our ultimate goal,” said head coach Jesse Marsch, whose side fell short in the conference final as Supporters’ Shield champions the year prior. “It was a major disappointment. I was more hurt this time around.”

“It’s something I spent a lot of the off-season thinking about,” said goalkeeper Luis Robles. “I was introspective – is there something I’m doing wrong? We have a lot of people smarter than me trying to solve that.”

Marsch and the organization, without the departed Sporting Director Ali Curtis, are confident they are making the necessary adjustments with the proper personnel to enhance their 2017 experience and erase the playoff gloom of the past.

The Red Bulls’ highlighted the offseason by making the move towards youth. Gone is Dax McCarty, former Red Bull captain, as the club turns over a midfield spot to up-and-comer Sean Davis. U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team midfielder Tyler Adams remains in the wings, while Aaron Long could make the leap into the defense.

Still, the focus remains clear: the Red Bulls covet, and need, an MLS Cup.

“We have a mission to be the top organization in MLS,” said Robles. “That’s tough to say if you haven’t won the MLS Cup. That’s really the missing part of this franchise.”

Here’s a closer look at the 2017 Red Bulls team:


2016 FINISH:  16-9-9 (1st in Eastern Conference)

KEY ACQUISITIONS:  Michael Amir Murillo, Aaron Long, Zeiko Lewis, Arun Basuljevic, Dan Metzger

KEY LOSSES:  Dax McCarty, Chris Duvall, Ronald Zubar, Karl Ouimette, Omer Damari


Long was named the USL Defender of the Year helping to lead Red Bulls II to the league championship as the team allowed the fewest goals in the league. There is a high demand on the central defenders in the Red Bulls counter-press system and necessary traits include a soccer brain, athleticism and good feet. Marsch says Long has displayed those qualities to provide superior depth in the middle that includes veterans Aurélien Collen and Damien Perrinelle.

PRESSURE IS ON:  Sacha Kljestan

The popular Dax McCarty was traded to Chicago in January. While McCarty was the captain and undisputed vocal leader of the Red Bulls, Sacha Kljestan has provided valuable leadership in a subtle way over the last two seasons.  Kljestan, arguably the premier midfielder in MLS over the past two seasons, will don the captain’s armband in 2017. Can Kljestan successfully juggle responsibilities for both club and country? It may be impossible for Kljestan to improve on his last two MLS campaigns and a drop-off in effectiveness would be a deterrent in the Red Bulls quest for the MLS Cup.


While Marsch is confident that the Red Bulls have a roster blend that is superior to his previous two groups, there remains a lingering concern with the back third of his system.

“We’ve used 39 different back lines in 81 games over the last two seasons,” Marsch told SBI. “It’s pretty impressive that we’ve had that much success with that many people rotating through the back line.”

“The defenders in front of me have been a revolving door,” added the iron man, Robles, who has started and completed every game in each of the last four seasons with the Red Bulls. He holds the MLS record for consecutive starts.

Marsch and his technical staff have spent a good portion of the off-season devising a plan that will compliment an attack that scored 61 goals a season ago, second only to their cross-river rivals, New York City FC (62).

“We charted what kind of goals we give up,” said Marsch. “We’ve been very good at set pieces, pretty good on crosses. The area we’ve given up a lot is counter attacks.”

Consequently, the acclaimed counter-press that has produced results like the 7-0 derby thrashing of NYCFC last season, will undergo an adjustment.

“We’ve altered our pressing,” said Marsch. “We’re not changing our philosophy but we need to be more compact to eliminate moments where teams can slice through us or beat us with one long pass.”

The back line has been fortified both centrally and wide. Long is ready for the tempo of MLS to provide a more secure presence in the face of the counter. The acquisition of 20-year old Panamanian, Michael Amir Murillo, will provide a boost at fullback after Chris Duvall was selected by Minnesota United in the Expansion Draft.  A more polished Kemar Lawrence, a healthy Connor Lade and the experience of Sal Zizzo affords hope for greater continuity at the back.

Meanwhile, the midfield will have an altered look with the parting of McCarty and the entrance of the kids – Davis (24) and Adams (18) – both “poised to have huge seasons” according to Marsch.

“Going into the season without Dax means there’s a big hole we have to fill,” said Robles. “These guys have the quality and personality to help make the void a little less.”

Striker Bradley Wright-Phillips returns to defend his Golden Boot (24 goals) with Homegrown back-up Brandon Allen moving into a primary reserve roll after being named USL Rookie of the Year with a rookie-record 15 goals.

On the flanks, the Red Bulls are stocked with myriad options led by Mike Grella, Gonzalo Veron, Daniel Royer, Alex Muyl and Homegrown Derrick Etienne. Last pre-season, Veron suffered a serious hamstring injury which hampered a system plan that is assured to be exposed in ’17.

“I think we’ll employ two strikers a lot more this year,” said Marsch. “Gonzalo has had a good pre-season. You’ll see that Sacha at times will be the second striker, too.”

While Marsch will focus on solidifying the roles on the defending side, he is delighted by the variety he can choose from when going to goal.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever had this many quality attacking options.”




  1. Davis, Long and Bilyeu look good. The rest of the team looks very solid. The problem is Sasha Klestjian. Bottom line is that he is not all that. Besides his penchant for missing crucial PKs,….he just isn’t that good. The irony is that Marsh thinks he is the teams strength when he is actually the teams weakness.

  2. As I’ve said for years, this team will be better without Dax (“The area we’ve given up a lot is counter attacks” is not a good comment on your central defensive mid.) But it won’t win MLS cup unless it gets someone else besides BWP who can score regularly. He needs help, and the current roster is short on dangerous forwards. They will flame out in the playoffs as usual barring help.


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