Even with a week one loss, the New York Red Bulls are primed to improve on their greatest season ever.
The team is coming off the quietest offseason in recent memory, and the narrative heading into week one was continuity. The first match of 2016 did not go as planned, but there is still reason to think this team could make some noise in 2016. The reason for that is due to an acquisition the team made in summer of 2015.
Gonzalo Veron is emblematic of the current state of the Red Bulls as an organization. A 26-year-old Designated Player who was bought into the fold to be a soccer player first with almost no intention of being used as a marketing tool.
A left-footed, technical, speedster, Veron was the first DP brought in by Sporting Director Ali Curtis. However, unlike previous high-profile signings, Veron was not being tasked with being a team savior and crowd draw. As Curtis said at the time of his unveiling, "he is someone who fits well into our long-term plans for our club."
While Vernon’s signing was seen as a move with an eye towards 2016, there was a hope among fans that he’d be the missing piece that would help RBNY capture its first MLS Cup title.
Last year, though, it just wasn’t meant to be.
As most midseason acquisitions are want to do, Veron found his integration into the team to be a slow process and was unable to insert himself into the Starting IX.
Despite being Supporter’s Shield winners and sporting MLS’s’ No. 1 offense, there often seemed to be something lacking. Head Coach Jesse Marsch had crafted his men into a well-oiled, high-pressing machine, but there was a worry that they could run into issues. Without an ability to adjust on-the-fly or deviate from their rigid 4-2-3-1 formation, the Red Bulls ran into trouble during the playoff matchups against D.C. United and Columbus Crew SC.
New York was able to win three out of their four playoffs games, but only scored three goals in the those wins as they were eliminated by Columbus in the Eastern Conference Final.
In order for Veron to emerge in 2016, it’s assumed that he’s going to have unseat one of Mike Grella or Lloyd Sam in the starting lineup. Veron’s inability to achieve that in 2015 was largely due to the tremendous success of the NY’s winger’s terrorizing MLS defenses to the tune of a combined total of 19 goals and 14 assists.
Despite that production, the eye-test shows that Veron is probably the most-talented of the trio with speed and technical ability that neither of the Red Bulls’ incumbents possess. Can that talent translate into even greater success on the field?
That success can be buoyed NY’s ability to throw different looks at its opponents through the deployment of Veron in a 4-2-2-2 formation aimed to unlock defenses set up to bunker.
As Eric Giacometti alluded to, it’s becoming increasingly likely that NY is ready to unleash their attacking Argentine on MLS as a second striker.
In describing his impressive preseason camp, Giacometti notes that Veron is beginning to build a real chemistry with NY’s star striker, Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Last year showed that Bradley Wright-Phillips had multiple dimensions to his game that did not show in his record-tying 27 goal campaign in 2014. In the end, teams adjusted in the playoffs and BWP had difficulty fishing space and chances. Wright-Phillips was completely neutralized in the Eastern Conference Final as Columbus stifled NY's attack. Having a second talented player up front led to a goal late in the second leg (the Red Bulls' only goal of the series), even if was a little bit too late.
The Red Bulls' high press system, is just that, a system. It is a percussion and string section of an orchestra with only a few soloists to make them shine. Adding Veron up top provides one of the most talented soloists the Red Bulls have. Bradley Wright-Phillips works perfectly in this system, but adding the freestyles of Veron adds a new talented, unpredictable dimension.
If Veron and Bradley Wright-Phillips develop the type of partnership that Marsch envisions, the New York Red Bulls may have the type of dynamism that will not only produce success over multiple campaigns in 2016 but the type of bursts that are needed to capture an MLS Cup title.