Much of what made the New York Red Bulls so damn impressive last season was their ability to be a high octane, high pressure and high scoring side. They would blitz teams like Jesse Marsch was an estranged brother in the Rex Ryan family from the jump and be on the front foot all day long.
Granted, some of the success stemmed from tempered expectations and the turmoil that permeated the club through town hall meetings, well before Marsch ever handed in his first regular season team sheet. This year was always going to be tougher for a team that'd now have a target on their backs with the element of surprise eliminated.
Oh, another important ingredient to the magic potion that boiled into a Supporters' Shield winning season was a mustache. And not just any mustache, not even Dax McCarty's obligatory Movember mustache (in all its glory, mind) but THE mustache. Worn, of course, by Sacha Kljestan.
Through six games, the Red Bulls simply aren't getting Kljestan the rock nearly enough. He's the attacking heartbeat and hasn't had the chance to influence the game at the rate the team requires to be successful.
The Red Bull's (few) points earned, as well as the eye test of actually playing decent footie, are completely tied to Kljestan's personal stats in how they compare from last season to this.
Starting with the obvious: goals and assists are well off the pace. Currently, he's got one goal and one assist after five starts and one substitute appearance, which shouldn't surprise anyone given how abysmal the entire team has played (bar the thrilling 4-3 win against Houston at Red Bull Arena). Last season in 33 matches, he had eight goals and 14 assists (according to the official MLS site at least, which seems to be a bit more generous in handing out assists because the stingy WhoScored only allow him 10 - stat-keeping is a fickle game).
Going (slightly) deeper, he's averaging a full less shot per game than he did last season. He averaged two attempts a contest last season as opposed to one this go 'round. Again, this can partly be attributed to the general stench around the pitch for the Red Bulls not quite attacking as a whole as they did last season.
Continuing with this theme, as one might infer, all of Kljestan's peripheral stats are down. That includes average passes per game, which is down from 56 to 43, as well as his pass percentage which shriveled from 79% to 73%.
Kljestan has one stat that's gone up, though: crosses. He's averaging more crosses a match in this (young) campaign, and that isn't a good sign. The Red Bulls don't own Alan Gordon or any other gentle giant that lumbers up top and wins headers on a constant basis. Unless you count the late cameos by Anatole Abang, which I'm not.
That's not how the Red Bulls play, that's not how they've gained success. Their incisive, quick combination play last season is where the majority of the goals came from. If the no. 10 is drifting wide to put in more crosses, that means the attacking play is insipid and lacking creativity.
For all of that, a couple stats have stayed the same: key passes and long balls completed. These are important because it means Kljestan, in less opportunities, is still creating chances.
This rounds us back to the general basic thesis, which really didn't need many stats to back up: the Red Bulls NEED to get Kljestan on the ball as much as possible.
The problem isn't exclusively rooted in his teammates, it's also his work off the ball to find better positions. To create the perfect shite storm, it comes down to opposition planning to cut the service to the American as well, as it didn't take them many advanced stats to figure out he's the team's lifeline in the attacking third. It's a combination for all of the above.
His teammates haven't helped a great deal. Mike Grella is looking much more like the journeyman that he was prior to his transformation into a key player for a Shield-winner.
Bradley Wright-Phillips continues to struggle for form, Lloyd Sam hasn't made a great impact this season, Shaun Wright-Phillips is plagued by the fact that it's not 2007 and Gonzalo Veron is still unknown to the casual fan despite the fact that he was signed as a designated player by the club last season.
Veron will be a key cog if he can ever get into the first team regularly. His pace and natural wide play will stretch the pitch and open gaps for Kljestan to pick up the ball in more dangerous places.
The problems aren't just limited to attacking players, either. Once Felipe returns from suspension, that'll help get the rhythm back. But without Matt Miazga in defense the back line has been shambolic. There's no confidence, and the quality has dropped off. Miazga was confident with the ball at his feet and able to pick a pass. No one has stepped up and replaced the Chelsea defender.
One thing is for sure for Marsch's side: there must be a concerted effort to have Kljestan involved in the build up at every turn. That's how the form can be turned around.
For as long as the poor form continues, that mustache starts to get a little more creepy and outdated.
Wait, what am I saying? I don't mean that, no way. That lip sweater is the only shining light on a dim opening six Red Bull games this season. Play on, Sacha, play on.