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Defensive depth was a calculated risk, and Jesse Marsch must now adjust

The defense was expected to be a plus, but injuries and miscalculations leave the Red Bulls in a tough spot.

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports


One of the major buzzwords coming from the New York Red Bulls out of the preseason was continuity. For a franchise known for its revolving door for personal and scattered results, sporting director Ali Curtis and head coach Jesse Marsch set out to make 2016 the year of continuity and consistency.

The clearest sign of this commitment was shown by NY bringing back 10 members from 2015’s starting XI. The only major move of the offseason was the sale of defender Matt Miazga to Chelsea, whose desire to ply his trade in Europe opened up a hole in central defense. That hole was quickly filled with the signing of Ghanaian center back Gideon Baah. Outside of the Miazga-Baah swap, the only players to come into the squad were a group homegrown players aimed to supplement the roster and further signal the organization’s commitment to getting younger.

It all sounded good on paper. This was the 2015 Supporter’s Shield winners after all, and the idea of bringing a nearly identical squad back for 2016 didn’t seem like too faulty a strategy.

Then the hamstrings started popping.

While the injury to the Gonzalo Veron short-circuited any plans on a new and more dynamic attack, the injuries to Ronald Zubar, Kemar Lawrence and Baah (not to mention the continued recovery of Damien Perrinelle from knee surgery) have severly derailed RBNY’s defense as they have limped to a 1-5 record while giving up 13 goals, tying with the defending champion Portland Timbers for worst in MLS.

Coming into the season, Curtis took a calculated risk and got burned. Many have wondered why after the Miazga sale, did Curtis only bring in Baah and not bring in another starting-caliber central defender along with him. The guess here is that it was a numbers game.

Perrinelle is out until at least the beginning of the summer, but he does currently occupy a roster spot and space in the salary budget. The French defender is not currently available to help the Red Bulls and his inclusion on the roster takes up a spot and money away from someone who could help right now. While that may be frustrating for fans in the moment, Curtis has to make the long play here in thinking about the entire season and not only the beginning. This is one of many affects of the MLS’s roster and salary rules. It’s probably the biggest reason Curtis didn’t make any extra defensive signings.

This is all a hypothesis, but it’s almost a certainty that money was the issue. Not necessarily the lack of money to further bolster the defense but a lack of space within the salary budget to fit another defender in. MLS’s lack of transparency is annoying and makes it hard to discuss things like this with any real knowledge, but the guess is that when taking into a account automatic player raises for 2016, and the fact that Miazga was a Homegrown player whose salary didn’t count towards the budget, Baah’s signing used whatever budget space the Red Bulls may have had available if Miazga were to remain in the fold.

There’s also the likelihood that Baah is pulling in more than Miazga’s $74,500 in guaranteed compensation last year and who knows what affect that has on the budget Austria provides Curtis.

In doing a one-for-one swap of Miazga for Baah, NY will go on for the majority of the season with four central defenders that they’ll be comfortable with (Zubar and Karl Quintette round out the quartet with Perrinelle). Tough choices have to made and sometimes those dice rolls are gong to come up snake eyes.

This is now a situation that Marsch must combat and fix.

You can have a style of play and an ethos, but you have to be able to react to the talent that’s at your disposal. This doesn’t mean that total overhauls need to take place, and there aren’t any indications that one would take place, but there do need to be tweaks to the plan. You cannot do the same exact thing you do with replacement-level players that you do with your top-level talent. A defensive line that’s being held together by duct tape cannot be put under the same strain as a healthy first-choice group can. The replacement group will break and we’re seeing just that each and every game.

Marsch must figure out how to protect his back line as his starters return to health. Whether that means taking one of his defensive midfielders off pressing duties and deploying them strictly as a shield for the back four or trying to concede some possession in order to keep a better shape remains to be seen. The return of Zubar to the starting lineup on Saturday is a step in the right direction but the problems of the defensive line won’t be entirely solved with his presence.

Curtis took a chance that his backline would hold up until the return of Perrinelle. Unfortunately, that group turned into a mash unit and since there won’t be any new players coming, it’s up to Marsch to make things work until his first-choice defenders return to full health.