The New York Red Bulls are set to embark on the second leg of their preseason camp in Florida, this time they are in Bradenton for the IMG Suncoast Classic. This preseason tournament style situation provides the club with a second batch of games in which to figure out some formation questions. The most pressing of which will be the central defenders and the midfield, particularly how they set the midfield and who plays the left wing spot in that formation.
The Red Bulls are set on the right side of the midfield with Lloyd Sam entering the season as the starter at that position, where his speed and ball skills have been a difference maker on the offensive attack for the club in recent years. The "holding midfielder" (one of them at least) is a role which will continue to be filled by Dax McCarty, who thrived in that position last season as a player who does a lot of important intangible things which do not end up on the stats sheet.
However, the remainder of the midfield remains largely a mystery under new Head Coach Jesse Marsch, who has not said much publicly about his plans for the formation of the team, but did make headlines this week with his comment that the Red Bulls could be in the market for one or two Designated Players during this summer. Many fans, myself included, were hoping for a Designated Player signing during the next week or ten days to jump start the club into the new season.
The club did obtain Felipe Martins and Sacha Kljestan in recent weeks to bolster the midfield, but the role of each player is shrouded in some rather unknown variables at this point. Coach Marsch had Martins on his team when he was the coach of the Montreal Impact, and Felipe had his best offensive production of his career at that point. However, he is probably better suited to a central midfield role, potentially even opposite McCarty in a "holding midfield" type role at this point.
I was privileged to cover the conference call where the Red Bulls announced that Kljestan had joined the team and the questions ensued about his exact role as he is also more naturally used to playing in a central midfield role and played more of defensive oriented role at points in his time in Belgium. Coach Marsch said at another point that he felt that Kljestan could be used as an offensive central midfielder and could even be used on the wing at times. So we have our first candidate for the left wing position.
The Red Bulls could decide to use a diamond style formation in the midfield playing Sam on the right wing, Felipe Martins on the left side, Kljestan as the attacking central midfielder, and McCarty at the bottom of the diamond as the defensive midfielder. The advantage here in this variation would be to have Martins passing ability on one side, Sam with his speed and crossing ability on the other, and Kljestan with his size, ball skills, and two way capability in the center. Sacha could easily drop back into a supporting role defensively to help McCarty in certain game situations. He could also be rather effective in creating scoring opportunities for Bradley Wright-Phillips up at the top of the attacking formation.
Coach Marsch could go with a variation with Ruben Bover playing the left midfield spot and shift Martins to a central midfield spot that is more defensive oriented in an tandem with McCarty as two holding midfielders and use Sacha as the offensive central midfielder playing under Wright-Phillips with Sam on the right wing.
Furthermore, the midfield could be set up in a straight 4-4-2 scenario with either Mike Grella or Peguy Luyindula running up front with Wright-Phillips. In that variation the left midfield spot could be Bover or Sal Zizzo or even Sacha with Martins and McCarty in the central roles but with Martins playing a more offensive attacking role and Sam on the right side. In this formation either Bover or Zizzo would probably not be counted upon to play the full 90 minutes so I could see Sacha coming in off the bench in that formation to provide a spark in the later minutes of the match.
The new coaching staff could really get creative and play Luyindula and Sacha as dual central attacking midfielders with Zizzo on the left side, McCarty as the holding midfielder and Sam on the right side. In this variation I think the concern would be on two levels. The first being Luyindula's ability to play a large volume of minutes, he was good at points in that underneath play making type role last season but mostly coming in off the bench or playing in short bursts. The secondary issue would be the support for Dax and the potentially inexperienced defensive backline, in this variation, Sacha would have to get back into a defensive position rather quickly especially on counter attacks by the opposition.
In still another variation, Zizzo could play on the left side with Kljestan in an offensive central play making role and Sam on the right wing with Martins and Dax playing the defensive midfield spots. In that scenario the club could use Bover or Leo Stolz off the bench in the later stages of the match. It would provide the defense with an added layer of protection allowing the wings and Kljestan to focus on the offensive creativity that the Red Bulls will probably need in the absence of other offensive catalysts from last season.
Finally, the club could go with a three man midfield with either Bover, Zizzo, or Martins playing the left midfield spot and McCarty playing the middle with Sam on the right wing. This would create a scenario with three forwards which I think is unlikely for the club to pursue, but it is on the table as a possibility.
The Red Bulls roster is built for this season with a certain degree of flexibility and variability to the potential formations they could employ especially due to the versatility of their midfield players. It remains to be seen how the new coaching staff will set the lineup to address the need for a left midfielder. In my view, it could be a case of trial and error to see who will emerge from that group of players and which formation creates the most balance to enable the Red Bulls to play within the style and tempo which Coach Marsch is looking to employ.
In the end, I am interested to see how the new coach will utilize the players on this roster and I remain optimistic that the Red Bulls can be a competitive and exciting team with the group of players they have currently. This next ten days or so in Florida will provide some of those answers.