The third and final part of a brief review of the implications of the New York Red Bulls' opening roster moves of the off-season. Given the fluid nature of RBNY's attack in 2015, and the fact the team only has two dedicated forwards on the roster at the moment, it seems appropriate to consider midfielders and forwards together.
Under Contract: Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Felipe, Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty, Lloyd Sam, Gonzalo Veron
Option Declined: Marius Obekop, Dane Richards, Manolo Sanchez, Leo Stolz, Shaun Wright-Phillips
Under Contract: Anatole Abang, Mike Grella, Bradley Wright-Phillips
Option Declined: None
Of the players released, the club has described Sanchez and Richards as forwards, so we'll agree to differ on that point. Whatever their designation, neither player's absence greatly affects the roster's needs in midfield or up front. Richards spent most of the season on loan to Indy Eleven in NASL; Sanchez spent most of his time playing for NYRB II. Both did well in their respective assignments, but clearly RBNY can prosper without them and favors room on the roster over their talents.
It would not be surprising to see Sanchez, Obekop, or Stolz - all relatively young players (Stolz will be 25 in February, but 2015 was his rookie season as a pro) - turn up on NYRB II's roster. Nor would it be surprising if they don't return at all. They may have better options than the Red Bulls' reserve team, and their places on the roster will presumably be filled by another crop of young players.
Overall, RBNY has retained all its 2015 starters under contract for 2016. Gonzalo Veron is expected to break into the starting lineup next season, and Jesse Marsch has noted he didn't get homegrown prospect Sean Davis enough time on the field this year. If SWP comes back - and the club has said it is discussing a new contract with him - the team has abundant competition for places all over the midfield.
With all the midfield starters under contract for 2016, plus Veron and (maybe) SWP poised to challenge the preferred lineup in pre-season, the major question at the moment is over depth, particularly in central midfield. Tyler Adams will turn 17 next year: he might be destined to spend most of the season gathering experience with NYRB II. Sean Davis will be expected to challenge for more time on the field, and BigAppleSoccer.com reports the club has made plans to have Devon "Speedy" Williams join the first team for preseason training.
Williams just had his USL contract renewed, so it will be interesting to see whether he is indeed being considered for a step up to MLS. Only five players from NYRB II's 2015 squad had their options picked up for 2016, suggesting there will be considerable movement at the USL level, while the club tries to hold its core MLS squad together. But there isn't much depth on the roster behind the core central midfield starters - McCarty, Felipe, and Kljestan - so another player or two would be prudent. Adams is risky bet to hold down a regular back-up spot given his age; Davis is a more attacking player, perhaps better suited to cover Kljestan than McCarty or Felipe; Williams has played centrally as part of the more defensive "two" for NYRB II, and told OaM he felt he was developing a good connection with Adams.
Ultimately, much will depend on the tactics RBNY is seeking to develop for next season. Throughout 2015, the team stayed faithful to the 4-2-3-1 it had adopted during 2014. The overall style was quite different from the prior season, but the formation for this year was much the same as the last.
The defining weakness of the 2015 squad, most tellingly exposed by Columbus Crew in the playoffs, was an occasional tendency to get bogged down and predictable in attack. If the opposition could successfully clog the central channels and stifle RBNY's efforts to counter-press into a better position, the Red Bulls had little choice but to go wide and cross the ball into the box. That is a low-probability option for the best teams, and it is a very low-probability option for a team deploying 5' 8" Bradley Wright-Phillips up front.
It is curious to see Mike Grella listed as a forward by RBNY on the end-of-season contracts announcement. He has traditionally been regarded as a forward, but is better described as a midfielder in the Red Bulls' current system. This is most likely not significant, but it does highlight quite how light the roster is up top: Abang, BWP and NYRB II's Stefano Bonomo are the only out-and-out forwards on the club's books at the moment.
A switch to a two-forward system (say, the 4-2-2-2 made popular by Roger Schmidt at Salzburg) would require a little more depth. That is arguably present already: Grella, Veron, Sam, SWP - all might usefully spell or partner BWP. And if rumors linking young Jamaican Junior Flemmings to the club prove true, it would suggest the preference remains for versatile attacking players who can play wide or up front, rather than specialist strikers or center forwards.
But with the full set of midfield and forward starters for 2016 retained, RBNY is well positioned to stick or twist as the off-season progresses. If the plan is to play the next season much like this one, all the pieces are in place. If the desire is expand the system and develop new tactical options, there are open roster spots and the possibility of trading a key player to gain a skill-set not currently represented in the squad.
Ali Curtis has clearly stated the priority for the off-season is continuity, holding the core 2015 squad together for another season. With regard to the midfield and forward positions, this would appear to have been achieved. We'll see if that remains the case over the next few weeks and months.