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RBNY 2015 Season Preview: A look at the midfield

Since there hasn't been a strike yet, we’re going to go ahead with our season preview and look at the midfield.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason may have seen a lot of front office upheaval, with the firing of Mike Petke and the introductions of Jesse Marsch and Ali Curtis, but that’s not to say the roster was exempt from a bit of an overhaul.

Thierry Henry’s retirement and Tim Cahill’s departure opened up two Designated Player slots, while Bobby Convey and several others saw their options declined. Eric Alexander, a Mike Petke favorite, and Ambroise Oyongo, a promising talent, were traded to Montreal. All this begged the question: Who is going to create the goals?

While replacing a dynamic creative force like Henry is never easy, the Red Bulls have done their fair share of wheeling and dealing to build up a really solid midfield unit (on paper, at least) that should collectively be able to complete that task efficiently. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the midfield.

The Center Mids

Felipe Martins

2014 stats (with Montreal): 31 games, 28 starts, 2456 minutes. 3 goals, 6 assists.

Acquired along with the top allocation spot in exchange for Eric Alexander and Ambroise Oyongo, Felipe had his best years at Montreal under Jesse Marsch before experiencing a dip in form after Marsch’s departure. If Marsch can bring the best out of Felipe once again, the Red Bulls will have acquired a crafty attacking midfielder that can turn on a dime and play an incisive through pass.

At only 24 years old, Felipe is one of the younger midfielders on the roster with a couple of years of MLS experience on his resume. Originally a center attacking midfielder, Marsch looks set on repurposing him as more of a natural midfielder so that he can partner up with Dax McCarty. I expect him to start, especially given how his play seems to benefit from playing under Marsch.

Dax McCarty

2014 stats:  31 games, 29 starts, 2666 minutes. 3 goals, 3 assists.

What Red Bulls fan doesn’t love Dax? He’s a class act, on and off the field. What he lacks in flashiness, he makes up for in work ethic. He’s a precise passer and a smart one at that. He should have no trouble fitting in to Marsch’s system, especially because his role will remain the same as it always has.

Dax has to fill in space and break up plays, while distributing the ball to jump start counterattacks. He is essentially the intermediary between the attack and the defense. His partner will be Felipe, who does not contribute much defensively. This puts the onus on Dax to stay deeper than his counterpart, who will likely roam the pitch a little more than our favorite redhead.

Dax is one of the more experienced midfielders on the squad and is one of the likely picks for captain. Although the last match of the preseason suggested that Roy Miller might be the captain, as he is the player with the longest tenure as a Red Bull on the squad, Dax will continue to be a leader on the field.

Sacha Kljestan

2014 stats (with Anderlecht): 23 games, 21 starts, 1771 minutes. 8 goals.

The biggest signing of RBNY’s offseason, Kljestan was acquired using the allocation spot the Red Bulls received from Montreal for Eric Alexander and Oyongo. Somehow, he wasn’t signed to a DP contract, which still leaves the door open for two more big name players. A definite upgrade from Alexander, Kljestan is returning to MLS as a far more polished and experienced product than when he left. Plus, he has something that not a lot of MLS players have: UEFA Champion’s League experience.

Kljestan can play as a box-to-box midfielder, an attacking mid, or a purely defensive mid. There was even talk of him starting on the left side in lieu of an actual left mid. He was primarily playing as a defensive mid during his spell with Anderlecht. His long passing range and vision complement his versatility, and also make him the perfect complement to McCarty. With Felipe set to play alongside McCarty, Kljestan has been used during the preseason as a center attacking mid, right behind Bradley Wright-Phillips.

The burden of creativity falls on Kljestan. While Felipe will also be relied on for this, the team will mostly look to Kljestan to spring players in on goal or to create chances. He is filling in for Henry in this sense. He may even be playing on the left side like Henry should Jesse Marsch decide to start this guy:

Peguy Luyindula

2014 regular season stats: 23 games, 15 starts, 1385 minutes. 5 goals and 1 assist.
2014 playoff stats: 5 games, 4 starts. 3 goals, 2 assists.

With Luyindula, it is necessary to include his playoff statistics as that is when he seems to come alive. At the risk of sounding cliche, he is the most "clutch" player on the squad. A skilled player with vision and the ability to finish when given the chance, Luyindula is listed as a forward, but could easily start in center attacking mid should Kljestan be shifted to the left.

If the Red Bulls are trailing and Luyindula hasn’t started, he should be the first person off the bench. He only needs a moment to transform the game, providing an instant spark off the bench.

The only downside to Luyindula is his age, and by extension, the possibility that he might not be able to play a high pressure style for a lot of minutes. He’s 35, by far the oldest player on the roster and he was never the paciest player or the hardest runner. For this reason alone, he might not start, particularly because of Marsch’s implementation of  an uptempo style. Yet,  because of the influence he can have on a game, expect to see Luyindula getting plenty of minutes regardless of whether or not he is on the bench.

Leo Stolz

2014 stats (UCLA Bruins): 24 games, 24 starts, 2054 minutes. 9 goals, 6 assists.

The 2014 Hermann Trophy winner was selected by the Red Bulls with the 18th overall pick in the SuperDraft. After declaring that he would not sign with MLS, Stolz reportedly told New York that he would sign for them if picked and that he did. Ranked as the third best player overall by Top Drawer Soccer, Stolz finished his last season with the Bruins by earning a host of personal accolades. He definitely has the talent to make it into the first team and even see regular minutes. He served as the metronome for UCLA’s offense and will hopefully do the same for the Red Bulls in the future.

A best case scenario for Stolz has him starting in left mid, but a more conservative prediction would be for him to be one of the more utilized subs, or even a regular feature with NYRB II.

Sean Davis

2013 stats (with Duke): 19 games, 19 starts. 6 goals, 3 assists.

The ninth homegrown player to be signed by the Red Bulls, Davis has his fair share of potential as well. Serving as captain of Duke, Davis was also part of the Red Bulls U-23 team that won the NPSL Championship at Red Bull Arena. He is more of a workhorse compared to the flashy Stolz, but he also has a diverse skill set that includes short passing and finishing.

A best case scenario for Davis is similar to that of Stolz. The left midfield spot is up for grabs and it all comes down to Jesse Marsch choosing who gets the gig.

Michael Bustamante

Bustamante was the 13th overall draft pick in the 2013 SuperDraft and signed a developmental contract shortly after getting picked. He hasn't seen a lot of minutes and didn't even make an MLS appearance in 2014. He will most likely be playing with NYRB II this season. Hopefully, this can help him develop to the point where he can earn first team action.

Ruben Bover

Bover is an interesting case. Although he made 15 appearances and 2 starts in 2014, he already seems to be overshadowed by the new draft picks. If this remains the case going into the season, Bover will most likely be sent to NYRB II as well.

The Right Mids

Lloyd Sam

2014 stats: 32 games, 32 starts, 2832 minutes.  4 goals, 9 assists.

Lloyd Sam followed up a breakout year in 2013 with a far more impressive 2014. He has made that right midfield spot his own and is currently the best option to start in that position. He isn't afraid to take his man on and as shown by his nine assists last year, he can whip in some good crosses.

If preseason is any indication, Sam shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, he's gotten better. He's added more defensive hustle to his game and is rampant when running down the flanks. Even more promising is his budding chemistry with Chris Duvall. The two had some nice link-up play during the preseason friendlies and could wreak havoc on the right side if this continues to grow.

Fun fact: At the age of 30, Sam is the oldest midfielder on the official roster.

Sal Zizzo

2014 stats (for Sporting Kansas City): 19 games, 13 starts, 1097 minutes. 0 goals, 3 assists.

Acquired through a trade with NYCFC, Zizzo showed that he can contribute to the side during preseason by netting a goal against Toronto FC. Zizzo is a solid midfield player that hasn't done much to impress, but he hasn't really done anything to hurt his case either. Zizzo has also played as a left midfielder with Sporting Kansas City, but his resume only boasts one match at the position. Zizzo figures into the team as a back up for either of the outside midfielders, and could see some decent playing time.

The Left Mids

Mike Grella

2014 stats (for the Carolina Railhawks): 7 games, 2 goals.

Another player that is listed as a forward, Mike Grella started in the last preseason match as the left midfielder. As the club lacks a natural left mid, Jesse Marsch will have to play someone out of position and Grella seems to be one of the stronger choices. Grella impressed during both preseason training camps, scoring goals in both. He's an energetic player that plays with confidence and gets himself into good positions. He likes to dribble with the ball and he isn't shy when it comes to shooting from distance.

Perhaps his only drawback (and most frustrating quality) is his inability to finish some of the chances that he creates for himself. It wouldn't be a surprise, though, to see him starting as the left mid.

Manolo Sanchez

2013 stats (for Clemson): 21 games, 17 starts. 5 goals and 3 assists.

Signed only yesterday, Manolo Sanchez is a player that can add depth to the very shallow left mid position. He scored in the preseason while playing on the wings and impressed enough to earn a contract from Marsch and company. While he might only be used to shore up the roster of NYRB II, Sanchez brings hard running and size to the field

Final Thoughts

- While the team might not have any natural left midfielders, there are plenty of talented options that can step in. Whether or not this will play out well remains to be seen, but keep in mind that the Red Bulls still have two Designated Player slots that they can use to fill this gap.

- The midfield has a generally young core. Lloyd Sam and Luyindula are the two oldest players that I included in the article, at 30 and 35 respectively.

- The spine of the midfield is going to be one of the strongest components of the team. Any combination of Felipe, Kljestan, Dax, and Luyindula in the middle of the park should pose a formidable threat to any opposing midfield.

Do you think that the midfield is the most solid unit? Who do you think should start?