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RBNY 2015 Season Preview: A look at the Red Bulls' defenders

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No strike has been called yet, so we're forging ahead with season previews...

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

A recent article by Franco Panizo for SBI noted the following:

When Marsch was appointed head coach of the New York Red Bulls in January there were some initial reservations as to if the crop of central defenders on the squad was good enough to carry out his plan for 2015. There was talent among the players on the roster, but not all of it fit into the blueprint that Marsch was laying out.

"Initial reservations" about the crop of central defenders? When Jesse Marsch took over the New York Red Bulls, here is the list of specialist center backs the team had under contract: Armando and Matt Miazga.

Armando never made it into the first training camp with the Red Bulls, which would suggest whatever reservations Marsch may have had about him were not based on watching the player match up against the rest of the squad and other trialists. Meanwhile, Miazga was in the midst of CONCACAF U-20 Championship preparations, and didn't link up with the Red Bulls until early February, by which time he was carrying a knock sustained during a jaunt to Qatar that was absolutely not a trial for RB Leipzig.

Marsch effectively inherited a squad with zero contracted center backs available for the start of preseason. "Initial reservations" seems a curious euphemism for "blind panic at the team's threadbare defense", but each to his own.

Hardly surprising, with hindsight, that the club hastily signed up three center backs in one day. We now know Armando was never getting a look at the field (we just don't know why), and Miazga seemed to have a reasonable chance of being claimed by Leipzig (according to their sporting director, Ralf Rangnick).

Or take the coach at his word and accept the new (and one old: welcome back, Damien!) signings as part of the careful application of a tactical "blueprint" after lengthy evaluation of the talent in the squad.

I called Ali Curtis a genius a few weeks back, but perhaps I overlooked his biggest achievement: the Red Bulls' back line should probably be the talking point about this team heading into the new season; it isn't because Curtis gave us so much else to talk about in January.

There will be new signings for the defense, sooner rather than later one suspects, because if Jesse Marsch had initial reservations in January, he ought to have progressed to "persistent reservations" by now: the team will start the new season with the central defense a work in progress and virtually no cover for both starting full backs (pace, Connor Lade: no disrespect, it's just you can't be in both positions at the same time).

It is reasonable to expect the full back issue to be addressed shortly: there were three left backs on trial at the last training camp. But a good back line is more than the sum of its parts, and this one currently barely has enough parts to go round.

The Center Backs

(Armando)

2014 Stats (all competitions): 25 games played; 18 games started; 1737 minutes; 1 assist; 6 yellow cards

(Armando) does not appear to be part of the team in any sense but the technicality that he has a contract for the 2015 season. We don't know why RBNY has not seen fit to buy that contract out, since it would appear to have no intention of playing him (if he was refusing to play - like Ambroise Oyongo with Montreal - the team could presumably simply suspend him, but we haven't heard any such report) - perhaps there is a bit of fine print the club is waiting to take advantage of in the event of a player strike.

But we do know the man has not participated in a minute of preseason. He's on the outs, and it would appear he was never really in with the new regime in Harrison. As such, all (Armando) represents for RBNY is a roster spot that could be put to better use. And if the situation persists much longer, that wasted roster spot will become increasingly troubling.

Ronald Zubar

2013-14 stats (in France's Ligue 1, with Ajaccio): 15 games played; 15 starts; 1254 minutes; 1 goal; 3 yellow cards

When he was signed, it felt as though Zubar was being brought in to be the senior man at the center of defense. Jesse Marsch confirmed the suspicion in his chat with Franco Panizo, largely because most of the quotes Panizo used focused on justifying the selection of Damien Perrinelle as Zubar's partner at the back. If other guys are getting picked because they complement you, you're a rock-solid starter.

The Red Bulls' season will in some ways, therefore, be defined by Zubar's ability to retain his spot in the lineup. If he drops out of the team, it indicates things aren't going smoothly at the back - and Jesse Marsch will have the same problem Mike Petke had last year: how to fix a dysfunctional back line in mid-season?

Zubar was a highly-rated defensive midfielder for the first few years of his career, and was signed by Marseille to play that position. It was Marseille that ultimately recast him as a center back, a position where Zubar has retained a sufficiently high reputation to be signed by clubs in Europe's top divisions. He joined Wolverhampton Wanderers when they were in the English Premier League, and left shortly after the club was relegated. Next up was Ajaccio, at the time in France's Ligue 1 - the team was relegated in 2014, and Zubar has landed at RBNY after falling out of favor.

He won't suffer the indignity of watching a third consecutive club be relegated on his watch, nor will he face quite the same challenge posed to defenders in the EPL or Ligue 1. So hopes are high that Zubar's upside will come to the fore this season in MLS.

Damien Perrinelle

2014 stats (all competitions): 6 games played; 4 starts; 341 minutes; 1 yellow card

He was signed by RBNY part-way through 2014, and picked up regular starts in CONCACAF Champions League, where he was neither terrible nor brilliant. Depending on your point of view, that either meant he deserved a start in MLS (since RBNY's defense was never great) or had made no compelling case to force his way into the lineup. He got seven minutes in two MLS regular season appearances as a sub, and continued to be unremarkable.

Unremarkable can be a wonderful quality in a defender. And though Perrinelle was cut almost as soon as the 2014 season ended, he was also mentioned as one of a crop of waived players the club was considering bringing back for 2015. That happened on Jesse Marsch's watch, and may or may not have been precipitated by the center back crisis recounted above.

Nonetheless, he's back on the roster and appears to have taken his second chance extremely well: Marsch seems to have Perrinelle penciled in to start alongside Zubar in the center of defense.

We have seen neither the best nor the worst of Perrinelle for RBNY. His career to date describes a solid pro, apparently most comfortable at around the Ligue 2 level in France. The achievements of the teams he's played for suggests he's good enough to help a good team fulfill its potential, but not quite of the standard required to keep a poor team from sinking to its level: in four seasons playing for Boulogne, he helped the club to two promotions culminating in a spot in Ligue 1 - and he was part of the team that was relegated back to Ligue 2 the following season (2009-10).

Since then, he's spent three seasons with Clermont Foot in Ligue 2, before clocking half a season with Istres (also in Ligue 2) - a short stint bracketed by two trials with RBNY. While his professional history may not give Red Bulls fans great cause for excitement, it should be noted Perrinelle has effectively been trying to establish himself with this club since 2013. Fans generally prefer to think the players they are supporting really want to play for their club: Perrinelle should not have to prove that point to anyone.

Matt Miazga

2014 Stats (all competitions): 9 games; 8 starts; 680 minutes; 1 assist; 2 yellow cards; 1 red card

Marsch has described helping Miazga establish himself as one of his "main goals for this year". Encouraging since the young center back is arguably the most highly-rated homegrown player on RBNY's roster at the moment.

It has already been a disjointed year for Miazga: CONCACAF U-20 Championship duty with the US followed by not-a-trial in Qatar that brought him the injury which arguably cost him the chance to push for a starting spot in preseason. But he's very much on Marsch's radar.

It is to be hoped Miazga gets the chance to finish what he started with the US U-20s by heading to New Zealand this summer for the U-20 World Cup. That trip will bring more disruption to his work for RBNY, and we'll see whether Papa Red Bull wants him back over for another not-a-trial in the summer transfer window.

One way or another, this could be a big year for Miazga. For RBNY, the question is how much of it he will spend with the team, and how much of the best of him fans in Harrison will get to see - either this year or in the future.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste

2014 Stats (MLS regular season with Chivas USA): 10 games played; 8 starts; 731 minutes; 1 assist; 2 yellow cards

He's the fourth center back on the roster right now, which suggests he's in line for some playing time at some point - even if it is just in US Open Cup. Jean-Baptiste won't turn 23 until June, but he was a regular starter for Portland Timbers in 2013, the year Caleb Porter was named MLS coach of the year. But he wasn't in Porter's plans by the time the Timbers hit the playoffs that season, and he moved on to Chivas USA in 2014, where he managed just 10 league appearances (albeit largely due to injury problems).

Marsch has described Jean-Baptiste as "raw", suggesting he's not a guy the coach is expecting to rely on any time soon. But AJB has more career minutes in MLS than the other three center backs on the roster put together, so while he may still be developing, he's also the RBNY player with greatest experience of this league at his position - for now.

The Full Backs

Roy Miller

2014 Stats (all competitions): 27 games played; 26 starts; 2291 minutes; 3 assists; 4 yellow cards; 1 red card

No one has been on this team longer than Roy Miller, who was the first player signed by the club under Hans Backe back in 2010. And he is the only player remaining in the squad that played that inaugural season at Red Bull Arena (until or unless Dane Richards is signed up to a second stint with RBNY).

Miller would appear to have finally stuck around long enough for fans to appreciate his strengths over his weaknesses. He is one of the better attacking full backs in the league: give him the chance, and he'll offer width and movement in the final third all day. Therein lies his problem: he can often get stranded up the field, or caught out of position or out of breath if he does manage to get back to defend.

Not that he has to be an out-and-out attacking full back. During the 2014 World Cup, Miller was part of Costa Rica's extraordinarily well-disciplined and tactically astute defense. He was a reserve player, but he got a start - and a clean sheet - against England in the group stage.

It's possible we've never seen the best of Miller in a RBNY shirt. Back in 2013, when Miller was generally considered a liability by Red Bulls fans, Jorge Luis Pinto defended the player he considered a key part of his work with Costa Rica:

"I can't evaluate Roy just for what he does in New York. It’s not our fault that they don't have a real concept of a lineal defense. I don't think they work specific concepts for a real back line. … We work a full concept of defensive lines and Roy learned those concepts and used them well."

Oh, how we laughed. Until...yeah, since Miller joined RBNY, the defense has never looked anywhere near as good as Costa Rica's at the 2014 World Cup. And Miller was often a center back for Pinto.

Right now, he's the best left back on RBNY's roster, one of the best in the league, and perhaps the greatest reason to be optimistic that - with the right coaching - the Red Bulls could have a solid defense this year.

He is also, however, the only defender on the roster likely to get regular minutes for a senior national team. He is still, as far as we know, a significant part of Costa Rica's plans, which means it is prudent to anticipate he'll get called up for this summer's Gold Cup. Miller's back-up is a position of need on the current roster. It is a need created by the decision to trade away Ambroise Oyongo to strengthen the midfield, so it can be hoped Jesse Marsch knew he was going to have this problem, and has planned accordingly.

Chris Duvall

2014 Stats (all competitions): 22 games played; 21 starts; 1871 minutes; 1 assist; 1 red card

Last year's rookie revelation, a dependable full back who stepped in when more experienced candidates just couldn't get it right for Mike Petke, looks like this year's starting right back.

Duvall at his best is a solid one-on-one defender with the ability to get forward and cross with either foot. The quality of those crosses, however, could use some work - and he lost his place in the starting lineup in 2014 after coming up against Landon Donovan in the full glory of his extended farewell to MLS.

No shame in not being able to handle Donovan: not many defenders could in the second half of last year. And Petke took steps to protect Duvall, benching him for Richard Eckersley, who proved sufficiently competent to hang on to the starting spot for the rest of the season.

This year, we hope to see Duvall emerge as a true starting-caliber MLS right back, able to shrug off the occasional disappointing performance and keep going for a full season.

Connor Lade

2014 Stats (all competitions): 10 games played; 2 starts; 182 minutes; 1 goal; 1 yellow card; 1 red card

For the moment, Lade is listed by the club as a defender and stands out as probably the only player in the squad capable of covering for both full back positions. Until reinforcements arrive, he is RBNY's depth at both left and right back.

He is also a depth option in midfield: he can do a job on either wing and in the middle. Where you believe Lade to be most effective probably correlates with the last time you think you saw him play well. His versatility has become his curse. It's not clear where he's most effective, and as such he's not considered a starter at any position.

There arguably isn't a player on this team that has suffered more by the club's incessant tinkering with its coaching staff.

His rookie year saw him rack up 22 starts in MLS and more than 2,000 minutes, predominantly as a midfielder. He ended that season with a national team call up, but returned to RBNY to find a new coach - Mike Petke - who never seemed sold on his talent. Last year followed much the same pattern: Petke treated Lade as option of last-resort, and never seemed quite desperate enough to give him a shot.

Until fixture congestion and an encouraging loan spell with New York Cosmos saw Petke apparently change his mind, and start to use Lade as a guy he could trust to come off the bench late in a game. It seemed entirely likely Lade would finally get a chance to establish himself under Petke in 2015...until Petke was fired.

So Lade is trying to impress his third coach in his fourth season as a professional. He's no longer really a young player: he'll turn 26 at the end of this season. He's basically the same age Roy Miller was when he joined RBNY (Miller turned 26 in November 2010); Dax McCarty joined the Red Bulls shortly after turning 24; Ronald Zubar was playing in the EPL by the time he was 25.

Players mature at different rates, but if Lade spends another year treading water with RBNY, unable to even convincingly describe his best position, it will be hard not to conclude the Red Bulls are holding him back. Whether he's a defender, midfielder or destined forever to be a hybrid, Lade needs to establish himself in the first team this season or be allowed to find a club that is better able to accommodate his skill set.

Expect at least one more full back option to join the squad in the near future - or Jesse Marsch will have some explaining to do about his thoughts on what amounts to adequate depth for the season ahead.

The presence of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Karl Ouimette (who can cover left back as well) also suggests Marsch is thinking he may need five center backs for 2015. Of course, burning a roster spot on a fifth central defender when you have (Armando) under contract might be perceived as inefficient use of limited places in the squad (the team has areas of need beyond the back line), so perhaps the Spaniard's position needs to be resolved before the defense can be fully stocked.