Mike Grella doesn’t play for this team any longer, so why bother? December 15, 2017 was the day the Red Bulls died, as far as Total MLS is concerned.
Even without the presence of Signore Grella, Tyler Adams and Sacha Kljestan have provided us the two storylines that can, and very possibly will, dominate soccer media about New York’s favorite team in red. For one, the Red Bulls can hang their hats on the young success story that is Tyler Adams, a player that may soon be gracing European pitches. Let his hype train never stop.
Offseason Grade: A-
On the other hand, we have the MLS’s equivalent of the Madden cover: the Red Bulls captain’s armband. Sacha Klejstan’s move to Orlando, after Dax McCarty’s 2017 trade to Chicago, came as a surprise for someone so productive, not to mention one of Jesse Marsch's former teammates. Luis Robles, awarded the team’s captaincy for 2018, could very well see the writing on the wall at this point. But the Red Bulls have much more to offer than lamenting Klejstan in 2018, and will easily be in playoff contention heading into October.
For one, New York is committed to ridding itself of elder MLS statesmen. Klejstan, Sal Zizzo, Damien Perrinelle, and Grella, all north of 30, were handed their marching orders in the winter transfer window. Gonzalo Veron, a RBNY DP bust if there ever was one, was sent away from from Harrison at the ripe age of 29.
The acquisitions that filled those somewhat sizeable holes were ten players all under the age of 28, nine of which are 25 and younger. Amazingly, this does not feel like a changing of the guard, but more of a refresh. In true Red Bulls fashion, Marsch again has promoted from within, adding two homegrowns (Kevin Politz and Ben Mines), and two NYRB-II products (Florian Valot and Stefano Bonomo). As FC Dallas’ academy has stuttered in the past two seasons from moving academy products to the first team, the Red Bulls have found a workable system that consistently fills their ranks.
Marsch’s marquee signing, Alejandro Romero Gamarra (Kaku), is the expected inheritor of Klejstan’s role, and Marc Rzatkowski (the RB Salzburg loanee), will easily replace Grella wide on the right. Daniel Royer, whose production has steadily climbed over the past two seasons, and Bradley Wright-Phillips will easily balance out the NYRB front four. Considering their CCL form heading into the opening of the MLS season, the attack has little to worry about.
The rest of the midfield might look quite different sooner rather than later. Tyler Adams is the obvious choice at holding midfielder, but who slots in beside him, as of this past week, is now up in the air. Felipe, the former Impact starlet and Marsch stalwart, has reportedly been flipped to Vancouver along with $500k TAM and an international spot for Tim Parker. Sean Davis seems the logical heir to Felipe, and flipping the 27 year old Brazilian for defensive depth makes complete sense.
Defensively, the biggest question for New York is that depth in defense. That isn’t the case with Aaron Long, who proved in 2017 to be the most viable center back for Jesse Marsch. Aurelien Collin’s lack of consistency paves an easy path for Tim Parker at center back, once that deal becomes official. Kemar Lawrence will likely flank that center back duo on the left, and Michael Murillo, a 22 year old Panamanian, will do the same on the right.
A third possible storyline that could spell some trouble for the Red Bulls regards Mr. Lawrence and his potential exit. Lately, his pledges of loyalty seem reassuring, but he has explicitly addressed a desire to move on from MLS at the age of 25 (26 by season’s end). He already has European suitors and given his performances last year in Harrison and for the Jamaican national team, some type of transfer mid-season or afterwards seems inevitable.
As for the goalkeeping situation, Luis Robles’ abilities, once again, leave us with few questions regarding his performance and position as the clear starter between the pipes.
Key Player: Bradley Wright-Phillips
BWP’s production is somehow questioned, despite the fact that he has averaged 21 goals over four seasons. In fact, he has even proven to bounce back in production after a dip in form, evidenced by his performances between 2015 and 2016. It is not out of the question that he does the same in 2018. Provision is key for BWP, and even without Klejstan to pull the strings in the attack, he still does have Muyl, Kaku, Rzatkowski, Davis, and Royer, all players capable of providing something accurate in the 18 with which the striker can work. Without a doubt, he is one the of the best strikers in the league, and as his form goes so will the Red Bulls’ season.
Best Case: Making the Playoffs
The Eastern Conference is simply more competitive than it ever has been. Every rival around New York has strengthened, and the conference itself may provide the best entertainment in MLS given the likes of its attackers and rising parity. But the Red Bulls, for now, have a CCL campaign against Tijuana to worry about, straddling their home opener against Portland. Marsch has a legitimate chance of walking out of Tijuana with at least a point, considering the fact that Tijuana has only won four out of their past ten matches. Extrapolate that over a longer period of time with a longer CCL run, and the competition itself will be even more of a priority than it is at the moment.
Bold Prediction: The Red Bulls finish top two in the East
It is only a bold prediction considering the East’s competitiveness. But Marsch has already shown that he can get consistency and a form all his own out of academy products and foreign imports alike. The Red Bulls have strengthened in the correct places, and have become even younger in the process. Perhaps Jesse will be to get more out of the likes of Rivas or Tommy Redding, who did not turn heads for the right reasons in Orlando. But there are few coaches in MLS who have proven to make a team better than that sum of its parts. Marsch certainly has earned that plaudit.