In the 108 days since we last saw the Red Bulls take the field at Red Bull Arena, the team has lost a starting defender in the Expansion Draft, allowed another defender to walk in free agency, sold its captain to Chicago, parted ways with its sporting director, and endured numerous injuries at midfield.
So in other words, it's looking to be a pretty normal start to this year's campaign for the New York Red Bulls.
Kidding aside, this year the season begins a bit early for the team as the senior team begins its campaign with a pair of matches against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals - their first ever appearance in that stage of the tournament.
The team will be without several starters from last year's campaign: Dax McCarty, Chris Duvall and Ronald Zubar are gone for good; while Gideon Baah, Connor Lade, Mike Grella, Alex Muyl and (maybe) Kemar Lawrence are all nursing injuries. Up-and-coming midfielder Tyler Adams is both injured and on international duty with the USA U-20s. And this is the team's first competitive game of the year, so some lineup decisions may be driven more by who is fittest rather than favorite.
That isn't to say that the team is that much weaker from last year. The team's best forward, midfielder, defender and goalkeeper are all looking fine and are all elite players at their positions. Meanwhile, the players the team has decided to promote from within have demonstrated their readiness to step up, and are expected to play big roles in the season.
Standing in the team's way of advancing in the tournament are the Vancouver Whitecaps, who have never lost at Red Bull Arena (two wins, one draw). Despite letting star DP Pedro Morales walk in the off-season, the team has a significant number of offensive options to watch out for on what was already a talented, yet underachieving roster last year. In fact, if not for Erik Hurtado's terrible accuracy back in the September 3 match, it's very likely the Red Bulls would have lost their 1-0 road win that day. The Red Bulls will need to put up a much better performance this time around.
The Red Bulls will have their work cut out for them even in a supposedly fair-weather game at Red Bull Arena.
Here is the Red Bulls predicted XI vs Vancouver:
Justin Bilyeu - Starting over Kemar Lawrence after the Jamaican international missed most of last week due to international duty, Bilyeu has shown that he is ready to step up
Aaron Long - While Damien Perrinelle is more experienced and presumably healthy, Long has been a consistent presence in the starting XI this pre-season and has CCL experience
Sal Zizzo - With Chris Duvall gone, Gideon Baah and Connor Lade still not fit and Amir Murillo only on the roster for four days, Zizzo remains the only healthy RB on the roster
Sean Davis - The Red Bulls displayed enormous faith in Davis by forcing themselves to choose between Dax and Felipe just to keep him on the roster. Given that Tyler Adams won't be around to pick up the slack, Davis will need to
Daniel Royer - Even with established starters Alex Muyl and Mike Grella expected to be ready to go for this game, the fact that Royer has so clearly been Jesse Marsch's preferred option in the preseason speaks volumes to his readiness.
Gonzalo Veron - Jesse Marsch is going all-in on the 4-2-2-2 and needs Gonzalo Veron to be as good as advertised to make it work - or its going to be a rough season
Bench: Ryan Meara, Damien Perrinelle, Kemar Lawrence, Murillo, Alex Muyl, Mike Grella, Derrick Etienne Jr
The Vancouver Whitecaps went above and beyond what they have needed to do to get this far in the tournament, easily beating Sporting KC and Central to claim all 12 points in the CCL Group Stage and securing the No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals. As a result, we can expect Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson to go all-out in this one - with Jesse Marsch doing the same.
However, Vancouver have proven considerably less prolific on the road, netting only 20 times in 21 road games across all competitions in 2016. And within the relatively friendly confines of Red Bull Arena, the team should have enough firepower to get the result they want - even with all of the major changes from the past few months.
Final Score Prediction: Red Bulls 2 - 1 Vancouver