It's that time of year again. The regular season is kicking off! Are you excited? Great. Me too! Let's take a quick look at who the Red Bulls will playing in their first match of the 2015 season.
Sporting Kansas City, as you might know, are only one season removed from their MLS Cup victory in 2013, the same year that the Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield. After a tough 2014 season that saw injuries and international call-ups cripple the squad, Sporting KC have managed to hold on to (and in the case of Roger Espinoza, bring back) a solid core of players that has helped them find success. This is a team that has mostly improved since 2014, adding depth and quality to their roster.
One of the key areas that the club has improved is in goal. Gone is the shaky duo of Andy Gruenebaum and Eric Kronberg and in comes Chilean international Luis Marin. There are high expectations of the 31-year-old netminder, who was personally recruited by Jimmy Nielsen.
In defense, Sporting have traded away their MLS Cup MVP, Aurelien Collin. He'll be replaced by Ike Opara who will be starting alongside USMNT defender, Matt Besler. While this represents a downgrade at center back, Opara was voted Sporting KC Newcomer of the Year in 2013 before missing the majority of the 2014 season due to injury.
The midfield has been supplemented by the return of Roger Espinoza, who is coming back to Kansas City after a two year spell at Wigan. He'll be patrolling the middle of the park, looking to break up any attacks with Benny Feilhaber and Paulo Nagamura on either side of him.
Finally, up top, Graham Zusi and Bernardo Anor will be starting on the wings. Zusi brings pace and the priceless ability to find Dom Dwyer, who netted 22 goals last season. If anyone scores for KC, it'll be Dwyer.
Peter Vermes is still calling the shots from the bench and with the majority of the starting lineup resembling their squad from two years ago, the high pressure style that has become associated with Sporting KC is set to return again.
As for the Red Bulls, they've seen a lot of change - both in the front office and on the pitch. The firing of head coach of Mike Petke and the retirement of iconic forward Thierry Henry, it seemed to signal the end of an era for the club. Ali Curtis was hired to replace Andy Roxburgh as sporting director and a slew of transfer dealings followed.
Ambroise Oyongo and Eric Alexander were traded to Montreal in exchange for midfielder Felipe Martins and the top allocation spot, which would soon materialize as Sacha Kljestan. Leo Stolz, arguably the best college player in the past year, signed. Tim Cahill was sold to China's Shanghai Shenhua. Ronald Zubar, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, and Damien Perinelle were added as cover for the lack of center backs on the squad. Mike Grella, a journeyman with something to prove, was signed. In short, it was a busy offseason.
Despite all the movement, there is still some semblance of stability in the squad. Bradley Wright-Phillips, Peguy Luyindula, Luis Robles, Lloyd Sam, and newly minted captain Dax McCarty were all part of the squad that lifted the Supporters' Shield in 2013. These will all be the first names on the team sheet, with the exception of Luyindula who might see the bench on account of his age.
ICYMI, #RBNY Starting XI vs. #DOOP: Robles; Duvall, Perinnelle, Zubar, Miller (C); McCarty, Felipe; Sam, Kljestan, Grella, Wright-Phillips— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) March 1, 2015
This proven spine can't cover every position, however. Many questions are being asked of the defense, as a center back pairing has yet to be decided on. Ronald Zubar seems to be a certain starter, but who will start next to him? Promising young center back Matt Miazga has yet to play since sustaining an injury deemed "not serious", so Damien Perinelle is the favorite to earn the spot.
The midfield seems to be the strong spot, having depth at most positions. With Marsch's penchant for signing center mids, the middle of the park boasts plenty of quality. Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins, and Peguy Luyindula are all candidates to start in Marsch's 4-2-3-1. On the outside, Lloyd Sam has cemented himself into the right midfield spot. Coming off of his best MLS season so far, the Englishman shows no sign of slowing down going into 2015. Dane Richards is making his return to the squad, but will most likely serve as a back up to Sam. The left side is the only real conundrum, as there aren't any natural left midfielders on the squad. Sal Zizzo and Mike Grella are poised to battle it out for the spot.
Up top, Bradley Wright-Phillips has a lot of work to do. He has to shake the idea that he can't score without Henry. He seems to be just fine, however, instead playing the role of creator during preseason.
Who To Watch
Bradley Wright-Phillips and Dom Dwyer. With two of the most successful forwards in the league on either team, this is a match that could be decided simply on how well each team can cope with the opposition's forward.
Last Time They Met
Knockout round of the MLS Playoffs. Competing for a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Red Bulls defeated Sporting Kansas City, 2-1, thanks to a brace from Bradley Wright-Phillips.
20-19-12, Red Bulls. The Red Bulls have a slight historical advantage in all-time regular season matches.
Sporting KC (according to The Blue Testament): Luis Marin; Jalil Anibaba, Ike Opara, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic; Roger Espinoza, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber; Bernardo Anor, Graham Zusi, Dom Dwyer.
New York Red Bulls: Luis Robles; Chris Duvall, Ronald Zubar, Damien Perinelle, Roy Miller; Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins; Lloyd Sam, Sacha Kljestan, Mike Grella; Bradley Wright-Phillips.
The match is on Sunday, March 8th at 7:00 PM (Eastern) and will be shown on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Deportes.
Venue: Sporting Park