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How the Red Bulls' front three are paying off

Lloyd Sam, BWP, and Mike Grella have started to find form, and as a result, so have the Red Bulls. Could they help the team bring home a first-ever MLS Cup?

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season started, if you asked New York Red Bulls and MLS fans what Bradley Wright-Phillips was going to play like this season, you'd probably get a whole lot of "pretty average". 27 goals in his sophomore season was pretty fantastic, but many thought the key to his success was Thierry Henry. However, with 8 goals in 18 games so far this season, he's proving those who thought he wouldn't perform like last season wrong. Obviously, with 8 in 18, his goal to game ratio is nothing compared to 27 in 32. However, Wright-Phillips is racking up a fair amount of assists as well, with 5 to his name. What we saw last season as purely a poacher is turning into a more rounded player. The 4-2-3-1 that Jesse Marsch employs is very similar to the same formation you see at a club like Dortmund, and this sort of well-roundedness is required in a striker up top. However, this new Wright-Phillips isn't just all himself. The winger pairing of Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella are part of the Englishman's success and also deserve credit that the striker is getting as well.

Let's start off with Mike Grella. I won't lie. When the season started, I saw Grella as a weak link. It seemed like he couldn't really get anything right. However, he's adapted well to the left wing position. Referring back to that 4-2-3-1 that Dortmund employs, the left winger in that formation plays as a sort of second striker. We all know who Marco Reus is, he is the main man at Dortmund, and many of their goals are scored or assisted by him. Of course, Grella isn't nearly at the level of Reus, but his role is similar; get in behind the defense, act as a second striker, score goals, and create chances. In 17 appearances, Grella has picked up 4 goals and 2 assists, and based off of numbers alone, one would think that Grella is failing at his job. However, in his last 6 games, Grella has picked up 2 goals and an assist. In those 3 games in which he scored or assisted, the Red Bulls went on to win. The numbers still don't tell the full story, as Mike Grella often finds himself in good positions to score but is denied by the post or a good save. I recall him hitting the post with a fantastic curled effort in the game against New York City FC.

Now, onto the last, and in my eyes, the most important member of this trio, Lloyd Sam. Sam has played well since day one for the Red Bulls. However, in the absence of Henry, he's stepped up as the main playmaker for the club. The right winger in this formation is the winger dedicated to feeding the striker with a good cross or good pass. In past years for Borussia Dortmund, before Henrikh Mkhitaryan was signed, Kuba Błaszczykowski occupied this role. Błaszczykowski, a player in the same style of Sam, is a player known for his deadly pace and crossing. In 15 appearances this season, Sam has picked up 5 goals and 3 assists. These numbers might seem low, but keep an eye on Sam for a game, and you'll see him charge down the right side and put in a decent amount of dangerous crosses. On top of that, Lloyd Sam has started scoring a bit more. Last season, Sam scored just 4 goals in 32 matches and 5 in 22 the season before. Already, he has matched his scoring output of the past two seasons with 5 goals in 15 appearances. If he finds himself  in more positions to score, he can push to double his output from the last two years.

Many doubts were cast over the Red Bulls this season, especially after a decently sized winless streak. Marsch's tactics were questioned and the whole situation seemed dire. However, the team has begun to click, and the tactics are proving worthwhile. The Red Bulls' form isn't just down to the attack. The defense putting has been putting in solid shifts every game, and, of course, Luis Robles is like a brick wall in goal. However, you can't win without goals, and the three headed attack of the Red Bulls' have had no problem putting a few on the board recently, and unsurprisingly, kick started a rise back up the standings.