The Brazilian midfielder, Felipe, may be new to the New York Red Bulls this season, but he and Head Coach Jesse Marsch go back to the days when Marsch was in his first MLS coaching assignment with the Montreal Impact. The lone season that Marsch coached in Montreal was the best statistical season of Felipe's career.
Therefore, it came as no surprise that Felipe was obtained by the Red Bulls in the offseason, essentially hand picked by Marsch to be reunited in The Big Apple. That trade also brought the top spot in allocation order which allowed New York to also add Sacha Kljestan, another key midfielder who has contributed to New York's quick out of the gate success this season.
The club may have rolled out the same formation for every match this season but what has changed is some of the midfield players. The constants have been team captain Dax McCarty in a holding role, Kljestan in more of an advanced playmaker role playing just below striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Felipe playing all over the field.
The early feedback on the play of Felipe from the perspective of both the fans and the team beat media was that Felipe was scattered all over the pitch. The Brazilian also took on the prominent role of handling the set pieces for the Red Bulls, a role that was most recently held by retired captain and international superstar, Thierry Henry. Those are big shoes to fill.
The fans, for the most part, were skeptical after the first two matches of Felipe's style and level of play. That seemed to change after the road contest with the Columbus Crew. We all knew that the number of new faces on this club would need some time to get acclimated and form chemistry with one another. Felipe was not playing the role of a traditional box to box midfielder, nor was he playing the role of a typical holding midfielder or a wide midfielder. He was playing a hybrid role of essentially all of those positions.
The early returns on Felipe were that he did not get back on defense often enough, that he was playing out of his position, or that he was playing a role outside of what the traditional role for his position within that type of formation required. The focus seemed to be on how the roving play of Felipe might cost the Red Bulls a conceded goal, which could in turn be the difference between earning three points in the standings or earning either a single point or no points at all.
Free For All Formation
However before we call the Red Bulls formation a free for all, it should be noted that Felipe was playing in the style in which his coach wants him to play. There is a reason why Head Coach Marsch brought in this player who he was familiar with from the Montreal days, it is because Marsch had a vision for the way he wanted the club to play and he knew that very few players could thrive in a midfield role that was unorthodox. He knew that Felipe could play within those vague guidelines and thrive in that scenario.
Felipe has three assists already this season, his play on set pieces has improved, and his role within the formation has also seemed to really confuse the opposition at times. I know that other fans out there may call his first goal which came on Sunday against the LA Galaxy, a "lucky" goal, but it was a key goal as it saved the winning streak and more importantly helped the Red Bulls earn a draw instead of a loss in that match.
The fact that fans, myself included at times, have been critical of his play without realizing that it was by design from the coaching staff, is yet another example of situations in sports where we as fans have to have more trust that those same coaches know what they are doing. I admit also that it is still odd for me to not see Henry lining up to take the corner kicks for New York, instead it is Felipe who is integral in that role now.
The concept of change is hard for many people, and this Red Bulls club in 2015 embodies that principle. The fact that Felipe is not playing within the construct of what we consider a traditional midfield role is also, at times, difficult to understand. However, those changes and that type of outside the box thinking is what has the Red Bulls playing so well up to this point in the season. We all know that Jesse Marsch is not Mike Petke, but he does have some new and innovative ways that he has used the players on this roster which is bereft of star caliber players to achieve results.
So the next time you watch the Red Bulls either on MSG, a national broadcast, or in person at Red Bull Arena; watch Felipe and what he does during a given match from start to finish. You will come to find that not many players in MLS can undertake playing within that type of role within a midfield. I also realize that Coach Marsch gets him to play at another level, so I am glad that we have that combination to move this club forward in this transitional phase.
His play should continue to improve as this team builds chemistry through the gauntlet that is the MLS regular season.