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An Encouraging Disaster: the New York Red Bulls' 2016 season

The 2016 season was a mess, and that’s ok

Something interesting happened on Monday. In less than 24 hours after the New York Red Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs, I realized that despite yet another Cupless season, I wasn’t heartbroken. I didn’t need consoling. I wasn’t raging on the various social media outlets that Red Bull and Metro fans typically go to commiserate.

The end of the 2015 season felt like a dagger right through the heart. It may very well have been the biggest heartbreak of all the many heartbreaks as a fan of this club. This year though, probably just a stubbed toe. Sure, it hurts like hell at first and you basically want to kill and curse everyone in sight, but you quickly accept that you’re not dead and you’ll be OK. That’s how I ended the 2016 season. But I’ve also never been so hopeful and excited for the next season to start.

I have to be honest here. I’m not really surprised that this year ended again without a Cup. I am a bit surprised that it was Montreal who took RBNY out, though. Although I knew Montreal’s strengths played very well against New York's worst weakness, I still felt like the team would pull it off only to lose in typical Metro fashion in some wild and crazy, unimaginable way yet again in the Eastern Conference Finals.

I honestly didn’t think they would just lose. No great drama. Just outplayed home and away, and bounced out of the playoffs at the earliest opportunity. Maybe a plain and simple knock-out of the playoffs is an easy path to the least painful heartbreak. Or, maybe I was already mentally prepared for it. Maybe I was already looking forward to next year before the playoffs even started. Let me explain.

This season was a complete roller coaster. Before the season even started, there were some serious concerns about the team within the fan base. RBNY's 2015 center back duo - Damien Perrinelle and Mike Miazga - was done for: Perrinelle would not be available for at least the entire first half of the season due to a knee injury he suffered during the Eastern Conference Finals against DC United, an injury that played a big part in the derailed 2015 playoff run; Miazga decided to pursue his career in Europe, despite being offered a DP contract to stay with New York.

There were some positives though. Newly signed CB Gideon Baah seemed to be fitting in pretty well with the team and had a productive preseason. Even though Miazga left, a large portion of the roster was retained, which in itself was nearly a miracle for this organization. Preparations for 2016 - as judged by performances in preseason friendlies - were encouraging.

Gonzalo Veron, who finished 2015 on a pretty quiet note despite his crucial game winning assist against DC United in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, was finally clicking with the system and looked very dangerous in his new role as a second striker. On the subject of a new role, the anticipated new formation with Veron and Bradley Wright-Phillips paired up top in a 4-2-2-2 seemed to be working very well, even if there were some noticeable issues with it. The team was poised to finally add that level of sophistication that was desperately needed in last year’s playoffs. Bradley was firing on all cylinders, netting goals during the preseason. Sacha Kljestan seemed to be getting even more comfortable in his play-making role.

Then, before it had really started, the season began to fall apart.

In perhaps the most "Metro" way to end a successful preseason, Veron injured his hamstring only minutes after netting his third goal of a hat trick against Jacksonville Armada. New York started the season looking completely different than the strong team during preseason. After going 0-2, things briefly started looking up. Veron was back from his injury and was ready to carry his offseason success into the regular season. Then, it happened again; in what turns out to be one of the wildest games ever in Red Bull Arena, not only did Veron re-injure his hamstring, but Baah and Zubar also limped out with injuries. In one game, the starting lineup was shredded: attack and defense gutted just three matches into the new season.

New York would go on to lose its next four matches. Bradley Wright-Phillips was scoreless in the first seven games. Injuries plagued the team. The starting back four changed from game to game; the ambition of a solid CB pairing had to be put to one side as the roster simply ran out of healthy, specialist center backs.

Despite dominating virtually every important statistical metric game after game, RBNY kept losing. Eventually New York would pull off one of the craftiest, if not bizarre, MLS trades in a long time: picking up Aurelien Collin for nothing more than a fourth-round SuperDraft pick - with Orlando City still covering about half of his salary. The season did a complete turnaround.

RBNY would go on to one of the best and most productive second half seasons in MLS history. Between the historic Red Wedding - the 7-0 thrashing of NYCFC - and eventually ending the season on a 20-game unbeaten run across all competitions (16 of those being MLS matches) many thought this was going to be the year: the year the Red Bulls won MLS Cup. But there was a problem, a very big one.

They got complacent.

Why change anything?

You can probably put the blame on the horrible 1-6 start: it tilted the whole season, making almost every subsequent game count toward the goal of securing a good league position. You can probably put the blame on the team finding success by going back to exactly what it did last year. You can absolutely blame it on the 20-game unbeaten run. You can blame it on whatever you want, really, but the fact remains that the Red Bulls absolutely got complacent. That complacency is what ultimately lead to their early exit.

While virtually every soccer pundit was talking up their form, and fans were gloating about the unbeaten streak, the Red Bulls started to develop a concerning pattern. They kept blowing leads. Despite these blown leads, nothing changed. Marsch and the players seemed to be completely miffed at how they could be blowing so many two-goal leads on the road as often as they were - Yet, still, nothing changed.

The team kept with the same tactics it had favored since the start of 2015: control the center midfield and do whatever needs to get done to get Sacha the ball and eventually Bradley. It was a formula that was clearly working with BWP leading the Golden Boot and Sacha chasing the MLS single-season assist record. Why change anything?

That mentality is what eventually lead to RBNY's playoff failure.

Mike Grella saw a drastic regression in the second half of the season: only scoring once and getting three assists in the last 19 MLS games. The great footwork that earned him the nickname Grelladhino and made him such a strong threat on the wings - it nearly disappeared; he started getting dispossessed more often than not. Alex Muyl - who has got arguably the most impressive work rate of anyone in MLS -  is fantastic defensively, but seriously lacks attacking abilities. This meant the threat on the wings was virtually nonexistent.

During this time, Veron was for some inexplicable reason cast to the side, with Muyl as the preferred starting winger, even after Lloyd Sam was shockingly traded to rival DC United. What was once highly positive talk from Marsch about Veron’s great integration with the system, now changed to questioning how to fit Veron into the system. Despite some very positive appearances by Veron, he still could not break into the starting XI.

As the season progressed and the unbeaten streak continued, one thing became very clear to me, and it was terrifying the closer we got to the playoffs: the tactics developed over the preseason designed to add sophistication had all but been abandoned. You saw the formation changes once in a while. Any time Omer Damari was on the field, which was barely over 100 minutes across all competitions, you saw the 4-2-2-2. But for the most part, it was a forgotten formation and set of tactics from the distant preseason.

Daniel Royer came to the club and instantly showed that not only did he understand the system, but he integrated very well. After only a few appearances it was pretty clear that he had some great talent. Unfortunately, he got hurt and missed four games. So the team simply moved on to the post-season with the tried-and-true tactics that had delivered a 20-game unbeaten streak. Why change anything?

How could this happen again?

What followed was something that left many completely shocked, including the players. But for some of us who during this unbeaten streak were practically screaming over the countless issues that never seemed to get fixed, it was almost expected. The Red Bulls were easily eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals, ending another season without a trophy. No US Open Cup, Supporters' Shield, or MLS Cup.

How could this happen again? How could this team finish the season as one of the best goal-scoring teams in the league but only be able to pull together a single goal in two playoff games?

When things got tough, the team fell back to what was easy, familiar, and comfortable and completely tossed away all the tactics it had developed earlier in the year. The unbeaten streak was the single worst thing to happen all season. Worse than the bad start, and worse than the countless hamstring injuries that plagued the team all year. It allowed the team to completely ignore its many flaws: that Grella was horribly ineffective for the entire second half of the season; that Muyl offered no attacking abilities; that the team was consistently giving up the wings in exchange for super-defensive ability, chalking it down to "balance"; that there were multiple reasons for the blown leads, and that those reasons were never adequately addressed.

This is not to slight Grella or Muyl. I’m not even saying that they shouldn’t have been starting. But Marsch preached squad depth and rotation; he preached tactical variation and complexity: we never saw it. In games where teams would sit back and the team could have used a more attacking threat on the wings, Veron sat. In games where Sacha clearly looked neutralized, Sean Davis sat - even after he more than earned a more prominent role in the team by filling in for Dax McCarty.

Montreal came into the playoff series with a very simple, but risky plan. L'Impact knew RBNY had no Plan B. The Red Bulls' plan was the same as it had been since the beginning of the 2015 season. To beat that plan, all Montreal had to do was sit back, do its best to absorb the centralized pressure, contain Sacha and the midfield, and take the chance to counter whenever possible.

It was a risky strategy. New York absolutely had some big chances. RBNY could have easily scored quite a few goals and come out on top. However, Montreal knew New York wasn’t a threat in the playoffs. As Ignacio Piatti boldly said in his post-game interview, New York is a strong regular season team but a weak playoff team. Montreal took a calculated risk, and it paid off. L'Impact won the playoff series without ever being drawn out of its Plan A because it could rely on RBNY not having a Plan B.

What could New York have done differently?

Well, what about that Plan B that Dax complained about not existing last year; the plan that they seemingly completely abandoned early in the season? After the first game in Montreal, it was very clear what New York needed to do. When Veron and Damari were both on the field towards the end of the first leg, they disjointed and surprised Montreal’s defenders. The Red Bulls needed to spread the ball around and infuse some attacking threat on at least one wing.

Unfortunately, even with a strong attacking presence from the start, and eventually later in the game when Royer came in, they could not shake off their normal play. They continued to play centrally and didn’t use the wings as a threat. Just look at the passing and positional chart below.

Despite having Veron and eventually Royer on the wings, the attack was still very much centralized down the middle. Some of the heat maps do show that they were on the wings a bit during the game, but being on the wings and attacking from the wings are a bit different. Veron did have about four or five solid crosses from the wings, but the positioning of the players in the center just wasn’t there to get the goal. In the end Red Bulls simply didn’t show that they were in sync enough for using the wings more in the attack.

Passing and positional map

The Red Bulls' complacency during the season forced them to continue with the same style and tactics, denying them the chance to truly learn and fully integrate their Plan B. By being as complacent as they were with the unbeaten streak, they were never forced to think and act differently when their primary plan didn’t work.

The difference between Montreal and RBNY in the 2016 playoff series between the team was their respective attitude to risk. L'Impact took a big gamble. Sitting back and countering is Montreal's strength, but doing that against New York and hoping for the best is extremely risky: it is inviting a very good, very confident scoring team to take the ball and run with it. But Montreal understands that to win the Cup, you have to take risks. You have to be bold. New York was not primed for risk-taking, not inclined to make the bold decision - at least, not until things got desperate, and by then it was too late.

This season was an absolute failure. The future is absolutely bright.

RBNY failed in the playoffs, and that has seen some call the season a complete failure. I can’t say I blame them. Finishing the season with no trophies, an early USOC exit again at the hands of the Union, no Supporters' Shield because of countless blown leads, and an early exit from the playoffs because of an eerily similar unproductive attack from last year: you can call that failure.

However, you can still find some very positive signs in this frustrating year, especially if you’re in tune with Red Bull Global's activities.

RBNY started the year 1-6, had an unusual blight of serious injuries to important players, limited tactics to the usual one-dimensional plan, didn’t use squad rotation as Marsch once promised, didn’t use one of the squad's best attacking players in the new system (didn't much use the new system at all) - and yet still managed to advance in CCL, finish another season at the top of the East, and came close to contending for the Shield again. That is pretty impressive.

In the end, for me, it all comes down to patience. I know that’s not something anyone wants to hear, especially if you’ve been a fan since the MetroStars days. We want a Cup, period. We’ve been patient enough. But I think that mindset is going to lead to more disappointment. This organization is finally trying to put something together that’s real, lasting, tangible, and worth being very excited about.

If you’re in tune with the Red Bull Global system, you know this is only the beginning. Yes, this club is heading toward its 22nd season and still has never lifted MLS Cup. But this is only the end of the second year of this completely new system, a system that’s going to require time and patience to be fully realized.

Despite Marsch denying any kind of mandate for the system RBNY deploys, there are countless signs pointing to New York shifting closer and closer to the style played by Leipzig, Salzburg, and even NYRB II. It may be a surprise to some, but NYRB II plays a lot closer to the style of the other Red Bull clubs than the MLS team. That’s no accident, it’s very intentional. If you follow and learn how the Leipzig and Salzburg clubs are put together and play, you’ll notice that they are younger teams playing a higher tempo than we see here in New York. It’s no coincidence that for a second offseason in a row RBNY is planning to send some young players over to train with Leipzig or Salzburg.

All Marsch said was that there was no mandate: no policy demanding RBNY play a certain way. It would seem obvious, therefore, that RBNY has chosen to play a certain way - and there is still a distance to travel toward perfecting that style and fully validating the decision.

The 4-2-2-2 formation that was lauded during the last preseason is the same formation that Leipzig and Salzburg play. From what I’ve seen though, Salzburg seems to be more varied in their formations, which shows flexibility in the overall system. I’ve seen a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, and even a 4-1-3-2 formation. Granted, formations are just loose guidelines that become fluid as the game goes, but a team's basic shape does have a significant role in the way a particular match flows or a specific opponent is confronted.

It’s no coincidence that RBNY got Veron in 2015 and insisted he was a signing for 2016, even if that meant he was virtually abandoned for most of his debut season. The point was for him to be integrated as a second striker in the 4-2-2-2 formation. Depending on how future signings go, he can even be used behind the two strikers - similar to Emil Forsberg's role at Leipzig. It’s also no coincidence that the Red Bulls went and picked up a player like Royer, who very much fits the Red Bull Global player blueprint. Indeed, Veron, Baah, and Royer are all players that fit the Red Bull Global template - and we can expect to see more players like them in due course.

It’s tough to figure out why exactly the club was so willing to abandon its Plan B. Perhaps it was the aforementioned complacency. Or perhaps it was simply felt the plan couldn’t go forward with the current roster, or in light of the injuries that blighted the squad during the season. Leipzig and Salzburg still have notably different player types from RBNY - but this season makes me pretty confident the New York club's plan is to continue to make itself ever more like its European cousins, even if it means some big roster changes.

If you listened to Ali and Marsch during their end-of-season press, it was made very clear that the club has every intention of continuing to follow the path it laid out for itself in 2015. I predict some big changes in the next two years, because there will have to be for the club to continue to move towards the Leipzig and Salzburg models.

And as someone who has been following those two clubs very closely, I can say I have never been this excited about the future of this club. I have no doubt we will see out first Cup with a New York Red Bulls roster that is built to facilitate a full-on Leipzig/Salzburg style of play. And I have no doubt we will many Cups in the near future.

So, while this season was an absolute failure, stay positive. The future is absolutely bright.