Before the New York Red Bulls start their season with a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal (first leg) against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday, February 22. It will be the team’s 2017 season-opener, home-opener, first-ever CCL knockout round game, and the first time Sacha Kljestan will lead RBNY on to the field as captain for a competitive match.
For the occasion, as we assume he will do for every game he plays for RBNY this season, he will be wearing this baby.
Sorry, I meant this baby.
Paying tribute to three supporters groups’ that make up the South Ward at Red Bull Arena is a masterstroke from the new captain, and a welcome gesture after another turbulent off-season for RBNY fans.
At Red Bulls Media Day, Kljestan made clear he regarded the captaincy as an honor and he had a clear sense of what he wanted to achieve while wearing the armband. He recalled his feelings when we was first informed of his new responsibility by head coach Jesse Marsch: “I was proud, and my first feeling was that I am thankful that Jesse has that trust in me and my teammates have that trust in me.”
I am just proud to represent Jesse and the coaching staff and I want the fans to be proud of me as well.
For his part, Marsch clearly has confidence in his captain - a man he played alongside at Chivas USA before he moved into coaching. Kljestan has been a senior member of the team since he joined RBNY, and visibly a leader on the field: taking set pieces and penalties, assuming a central (figuratively and tactically) attacking role from the start.
Marsch had no hesitation in sharing his feelings about Captain Kljestan at Media Day:
It almost wasn't a choice at all. I mean, he had served as sort of like the vice captain for two years. And it was a natural fit. I mean, there was a discussion within the staff, but -- you know, I think it was pretty clear that this is a guy who's our key, top leader right now.
I think the players already all look to him. He has such a quiet confidence and an ease to the way that he interacts with everyone around him. He makes people around him better, you know, by how he plays on the field, but also by how he treats them and how he interacts with them in their personal lives.
Marsch also opened up a little about some of the tactical adjustments that come with the visible change in formation the team has been working on in preseason. The move to the 4-2-2-2 brings with it a some broader tactical objectives:
Yes, we are moving a little bit to a two-forward system and some tactical shifts. It's even different than when we employed two strikers last year.
So we're trying to find ways to be a little bit more compact with our team tactically and see if we can control the kinds of chances and counter attacks that we give up to the opponent, and in there, also still build in a real clear sense of how we press, how we counter press, how we attack, how we be aggressive to play the way we want to play.
The adjustment will also ask Sacha to adjust his role:
I think even this year, you'll see when we play two strikers that Sacha at times will be the second striker, and which still will allow him to, I think, when we have the ball, to assume that number 10 role and that number 10 position.
But I think what it does is, is it puts our -- I think what it does is, more than anything, it means that our first line of pressure is a little bit more aggressive. It means that the way it connects with the players behind them means that we can be a little bit more compact. We can still achieve some of those things, whether we play with three strikers or whether you want to call it one, but we like the way that the rotations work with and without the ball.
And in general, the compactness that we're trying to create is -- we think that the evolution of our team and where we're at is that we want to still find ways to prevent giving up chances. So defensively, we want to be harder to play against. Knowing that we have a great complement of attacking players that are still very explosive in the attack, and that we're going to score goals.
As captain, Kljestan also has to help his teammates adjust to the new plan on the field. He sounded a lot like his coach when describing the tactical outlook for 2017 - which is, of course, one of the things a coach wants of his captain:
As we are trying to tweak the formation we are trying to be less susceptible from opening ourselves up and creating too much space between our lines.
We are working on ways to be tougher to break us down and making teams earning their chances against us, we will go through some growing pains and hopefully we will be better during the playoffs when we get there.
What I believe we will see out of Sacha Kljestan as the new captain for the New York Red Bulls is the same thing we got from Dax McCarty, both men are driven and both men always made sure to keep spirits up for their teammates when things aren’t going right. But Marsch was keen to emphasize that leadership is a collective concept at RBNY:
All along we've said the captain is not a one-man job. It's about a community of people. And so I think that certainly the two guys that will support Sacha the most will be Luis and Brad. So I think the three of them will really take on big leadership roles, and I think there's more room for other young guys to blossom into bigger leadership roles, too.
It will be a remodeled Red Bulls that take the field against Vancouver on Wednesday night. It will be just the first test of the team’s new system and new leadership, but it’s an important one. This is a club seemingly forever accused of not being able to get itself together for the playoffs. This year, it faces the challenge of playoffs on Day One. Kljestan has a more difficult start to his first season wearing the armband for RBNY than almost anyone who has preceded him.