New York Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas has been faced with a difficult challenge this season, namely how to create a balanced rotation at the striker position.
At the start of the season this question had a more obvious answer. Armas started Bradley Wright-Phillips as a lone forward, giving Red Bulls II standout Mathias Jorgensen substitute minutes most matches.
After a lackluster start alongside Wright-Phillips, Jorgensen was relegated to Red Bulls II, with long-time Red Bull U-23 and Red Bull II product Brian White becoming the favored secondary striker. Then Wright-Phillips went down with an injury, thrusting White into the starting job.
After the MLS results on Sunday night, Brian White has 9 goals on the season, sitting behind only Jozy Altidore (10), Chris Wondolowski (10), and C.J. Sapong (10) for highest-scoring American forwards in the league. Of note, both Altidore and Wondolowski scored on Sunday to surpass the 23-year-old striker.
On Sunday night, against a surging New England Revolution side, White took a knock, ceding way to two-time All-Star Bradley Wright Phillips for 60 minutes of the match. Red Bulls fans were thrilled to see the veteran striker back on the pitch after months out with touch-and-go injuries, but now Chris Armas has a a dilemma.
Armas has the challenge of juggling Bradley Wright-Phillips and Brian White, as well as trying to integrate Mathias Jorgensen who has scored 8 times in 12 games for Red Bulls II, and Tom Barlow, who has scored 11 times 13 matches for the same side. All are signed to first-team contracts, have seen first-team minutes, and have an argument for getting more minutes in MLS.
“Brian White, I think he’s leading the league…of American strikers in goals scored. So I think… that speaks for itself,” Armas said after Saturday’s draw with New England. “The team has done fairly well in the last 10 or 15 games…and he’s producing.”
With Wright-Phillips working closer to full fitness, Armas will be left a tough decision, though a tactical adjustment could make things easier.
“Brad had an injury and he’s coming back and we’re methodically getting him back to being part of it. Maybe two strikers is part of that thinking. It’s not necessarily against Brad…when we talk about Brian he’s playing great. In every game he seems to score a goal or be involved in a goal.”
The Red Bulls have not used a two-forward setup very often during Wright-Phillips reign as the team’s leading scorer, but Armas did deploy a two-forward setup against New England, a clear sign that he is looking to incorporate the system into the team’s rotation.
The results on Saturday were positive, even if the final score was not. Led by a two-forward setup featuring White and Daniel Royer, the Red Bulls attack generated 22 shots.
The tactical shift worked well in the first half as it allowed the Red Bulls to embrace their pressing identity and sit deeper in New England’s half of the field. The Red Bulls dominated the Revolution through the first 45 minutes of the match, although they only netted a single goal to show for it.
“I think previously it hasn’t really looked good. I think tonight was really good,” Wright-Phillips said. “Brian and Danny looked good from the beginning.
“It just gives us another way to play the game because I think even after a while we went back to our one up front. We were dangerous all game, I think we created chances all game.”
Success in a two-striker formation is not unfamiliar to the Red Bull organization. Affiliate teams Red Bull Salzburg in Austria and RB Leipzig in Germany often employ a similar formation which has led both teams to great success in their domestic leagues and in European competitions.
While demanding on the midfield, the formation has led to impressive pressing performances from Red Bull’s European franchises, and its potential in New York was on display on Sunday night.
In addition to the Red Bull’s arsenal of attacking threats, attacking midfielder Kaku was one of the biggest benefactors of the formation change as well. With two forwards running at New England’s backline, Kaku was given more room to operate in addition to more targets ahead of him.
In an extremely tight Eastern Conference and with a tough schedule ahead, finding a solution to the Red Bull’s striker situation will be key. Armas has a number of options at his disposal. Whether he chooses to continue with a two-forward frontline or revert back to a single-striker formation, pressure is on to make the right choice and help the Red Bulls as they look to climb up the Eastern Conference standings.