The New York Red Bulls are undoubtedly in a period of transition to a younger overall roster as they look to reboot following the retirement of their captain and star, Thierry Henry. The news regarding Tim Cahill being released from his contract with the Red Bulls and the subsequent news that he has decided to continue his career in China, is just the latest in a series of changes to the roster of the New York club heading into the 2015 season.
The front office has made some transactions aimed at addressing some needs on the offensive side of the roster, but the defensive core of the Red Bulls going into the new season remains a pivotal, mostly unaddressed, area. The definition of the defensive back line of this club is up for debate. Some fans believe that the defense is younger, more athletic, and less injury prone.
Conversely, other fans feel that the defense, as it stands now in training camp in Florida, is too inexperienced, too prone to big mistakes, lacks a true center back, and it does not have enough depth to sustain even minor injuries which may befall this group. It is certainly an interesting debate which will most certainly intensify in nature when the 2015 season gets underway in March.
The fan discussion groups on social media, the MLS generated communications, and the general mass media coverage of the league have all touted this expression of "MLS 3.0" which is meant to describe the approach of the league (now in its 20th season) over the next ten years. The emphasis has been put on the individual clubs building player rosters through their own "minor league" or developmental systems, rather than going out and spending large sums of money on veteran players from other leagues throughout the world.
The net effect being that the long-term sustainability of the league will be healthier if the member clubs invest more money into their respective developmental systems. However, in many cases, the short term effect of this transition will be younger overall rosters. The NY Red Bulls have pursued this path so far in this off season, characteristically one of the biggest spending teams in the league, the new front office regime has been building a younger and cheaper roster in advance of the 2015 campaign.
The young defensive core of Chris Duvall (age 23), Andrew Jean-Baptiste (age 22), Connor Lade (age 25), and Matt Miazga (age 19) consists of players with very limited professional experience who are going to be counted upon to play very important roles for the Red Bulls in 2015. There is no denying that each player in this group has upside but that is tempered by the potential for costly miscues based on their collective inexperience.
Duvall displayed his athleticism and versatility when given an opportunity to play last season. However, he was prone to mental lapses and mistakes which allowed the opposition to capitalize upon with converted scoring chances. Connor Lade is a guy who was buried on the bench under former coach Mike Petke, who will be given an opportunity to gain playing minutes in this new system.
The Red Bulls added Jean-Baptiste among a great deal of fanfare but the reality is that he has no real playing experience on the professional level, he is an unproven MLS commodity. He is going to be counted upon to play a position on the defensive back line where, in my view, the Red Bulls need a proven experienced MLS commodity. Then, Miazga rounds out the list, he has a huge upside but is very green and just returned from an assignment with another Red Bull club in Europe to train with the New York side in Florida.
Miazga, just like these other young guys, will commit blunders and miscues as part of their progression, they will all have "growing pains" but those issues will take on added significance when it potentially decides the result of a given match for the New York Red Bulls. The defense is also rounded out by some veterans: Armando, Roy Miller, Ronald Zubar, and Damien Perrinelle all have some degree of professional level experience. However, with the exception of Miller, they all have some issues as well. In particular, Armando, who is prone to committing hard fouls and earning yellow cards. He was ridiculed for looking lost at points in 2014, but it was a new situation for him last season, and I believe he will be better adapted to the defense resulting in a better overall level of performance in 2015.
I can understand the sentiment from some groups within the fan base that believe that the Red Bulls are better on defense over the long term because they are younger and more athletic. I can also understand the feelings of other groups within the fan base that believe that the club is too inexperienced and lacking depth at key defensive positions entering what is a seven month long, grinding regular season schedule.
The Red Bulls fan base has grown accustomed to the team being a perennial playoff contender with a decent defensive unit. The hallmark of some of Petke's teams were of using defensive fullbacks up high in offensive situations in a more plodding style of play. Head Coach Marsch is expected to play a faster and more up-tempo style which could lead to the defense being caught in situations where they have less support from the midfielders. The fans will have to ask themselves now if we are ready to turn the defense over to some young guys with no real experience and if we can adjust to the consequences if the team moves in this direction.
In my opinion, I think that players need opportunities to rise to the occasion and play at a high level by being challenged by a coaching staff to do so. However, I am concerned about the lack of depth defensively because this team will sustain injuries over the course of the season, it is inevitable. I also believe that the team needs to add at least one central defender with experience either in MLS or another top league.
I would be interested in knowing what the audience feels about the defense for the Red Bulls entering the 2015 season. I look forward to your feedback on what could be the most pivotal unit on the team as we prepare to begin a new season.