The last few months have not been a happy time for Red Bulls fans. In early November the team was humiliated and tossed out of the playoffs by Montreal Impact (the first time the team had ever lost to them at home). Days later, fans could only watch in frustration as Sacha Kljestan was left on the bench by Jurgen Klinsmann in humiliating USMNT losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. Early in December, Kljestan and Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips were both snubbed for the MLS MVP award in favor of NYC FC arch-rival David Villa.
And don't even get me started on January....
Despite all of the frustration fans have endured since the end of the 2016 season, the 2017 season offers a lot of promise: More infusions of youth to the roster from the academy and NYRB II, returns from injury to key players, the anticipated return of RalfBall's 4-2-2-2 formation, and of course the CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals.
But before the team can really get started, it has to go through a few weeks of training and friendlies, with the first friendly coming on Friday in the Arizona sun against Portland Timbers.
One can make the argument that Portland had an even more embarrassing end to their season than the Red Bulls in 2016: The 2015 MLS Cup Champions couldn't string back-to-back wins together until September, got bounced by Saprissa in the CCL and finished just three points shy of the playoffs. Their players are much healthier heading into the season though, and the addition of former Red Bulls defender Roy Miller should help a defense that allowed the most goals in the Western Conference.
As for the Red Bulls, with Sacha Kljestan and Luis Robles working their way onto the USMNT, Bradley Wright-Phillips awaiting the birth of his third child, and Gideon Baah still recovering from last year's season-ending injury, the starting lineup for the upcoming friendly will be dramatically different from the roster that takes on Vancouver in the CCL.
Here is a look at the predicted starting XI against Portland in Friday's preseason friendly:
GK Ryan Meara - The NYRBII captain was the only other GK to mind the team's net aside from Luis Robles. He will likely be the permanent No. 2 goalkeeper in Robles' absence and will get a chance to earn that role in the coming months.
DF Kemar Lawrence
DF Aurelien Collin
DF Aaron Long - The USL Defender of the Year served the team in a loan spell last season, but has yet to receive a formal contract with the first-team. With Gideon Baah still awaiting a return from injury and Damien Perrinelle only just re-signed and cleared to join the camp in Arizona, Long will have a chance to earn that MLS contract.
DF Sal Zizzo - Until we know for sure that Connor Lade is 100% healthy, it should be assumed that the veteran Zizzo will be the starter at RB. (Miss you already, Duvall!)
MF Sean Davis - Taking over for a beloved veteran is arguably the hardest role for any young player to take, but if his past performance is any indication, Davis has what it takes to do it right
MF Tyler Adams - AmeriKante (I'm not letting go of that nickname dang it!) should expect an expanded role in 2017 either as a replacement for Felipe & Davis, or as a super-sub.
MF Mike Grella
MF Alex Muyl
FW Gonzalo Veron - Jesse Marsch still has faith in Veron even if the fanbase doesn't any more. But he lit it up in last year's preseason before injuries derailed the start of his season - maybe he can do it again.
This is, of course, just the first friendly of the 2017 preseason and Marsch has stated the game will played as three periods of 30 minutes, with every player on the current training camp roster getting time on the field.
So expect a lot of changes as the team takes its first look at potential new signings and starts the process of testing a few of the new ideas Marsch may want to implement this year.
The 2017 campaign is just hours away! And I can't wait to see what it has in store for us!