It was the fifth game of New York Red Bulls’ 2018 preseason and the first preseason friendly of the year for Phoenix Rising: not a match to read too much into. But also the first RBNY match of 2018 that fans could actually watch for themselves - so let’s read something into it.
The Red Bulls played USL’s Phoenix Rising FC on the evening of February 10, 2018, at the USL team’s home ground. PRFC is an ambitious club, openly and aggressively chasing an expansion slot in MLS. That ambition is perhaps best illustrated by the team’s most famous player: Didier Drogba, who is also an investor in the club.
Drogba started for Phoenix, accompanied by former RBNY U-23s player, Joe Farrell.
For all the talk of 2018 being a fresh start for RBNY, with playmaker and captain Sacha Kljestan traded to Orlando, the team Jesse Marsch started against Phoenix could have been deployed in 2017.
As Marsch explained to Red Bulls Radio’s Matt Harmon prior to kick-off, RBNY’s biggest off-season headache has been “visa issues” - assumed to explain why not one of the team’s new signings from abroad (Marc Rzatkowski, Cristian Casseres, and the stubbornly elusive Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra) featured in the game against Phoenix.
It is impossible to say whether the tried-and-tested (more or less) lineup sent out to kick-off against PRFC will be the one asked to bring a win home from Costa Rica in CONCACAF Champions League on February 22. But some part of the decisions that lie ahead for Jesse Marsch will be informed by this game.
What Marsch saw from his nominal first-team lineup was plenty of industry and an encouraging consistency in winning possession and working the ball into dangerous areas in the final third. What he also saw was a persistent vulnerability to the counter-attack and a consistent difficulty in making attacking chances count.
The Red Bulls stuttered at the start of the game and found themselves behind after just seven minutes. A back-tracking defense kept pace with a Phoenix breakaway, but Aurelien Collin’s effort to intercept a cross into the box saw the veteran center-back deftly chip his own ‘keeper to put PRFC ahead.
RBNY enjoyed plenty of possession and chances thereafter, but struggled to make the final pass or shot count - until the 37th minute, when Kemar Lawrence picked out Alex Muyl’s run, and the Homegrown midfielder nodded home from close range.
This game was Phoenix’s first of its preseason, and the home team swapped out most of its lineup for the second half. With fitness as much a priority as form, Jesse Marsch opted to keep his entire starting XI on the field for the start of the second 45.
It was the fresher legs that seemed destined to prevail when Phoenix’s Kevaugh Frater bagged a tap-in the 71st minute. The match had followed much the same pattern as the first half up to this point: RBNY had most of the ball; Phoenix made better use of its opportunities to score.
But Marsch emptied his bench for the last 15 minutes of the game, leaving only Felipe and Luis Robles on the field to see out 90 minutes of playing time. And it was the RBNY second unit that, surprisingly, turned the match for the visiting team.
Just as it seemed all but certain that PRFC would send its fans home happy for the evening, Vincent Bezecourt latched on to a loose ball, strode into the 18-yard-box, and arrowed a low shot past the ‘keeper.
And just when it seemed that both teams might be content with a draw, Fidel Escobar hammered home a free-kick to clinch the 3-2 win for RBNY.
Three thoughts on the Red Bulls’ first public outing of 2018:
1. The 3-3-3-1 has legs
Last season’s in-a-pinch tactical innovation - a three-center-back formation that basically played out as five-at-the-back in defense, and three-at-the-back in attack - looks a lot like this year’s starting formation. Marsch has a few new players in his squad, and a few who were borderline starters last year but might force their way into bigger roles this season. There are several RBNY-watchers who look at the team’s roster moves to date and think it all adds up to another crack at making the 4-2-2-2 work again - a tactical shift the Red Bulls have tried repeatedly under Marsch without great success.
All that can be said for now is that the Red Bulls haven’t got a lot of time to get into shape for CCL, and Marsch’s immediate inclination would appear to be to stick with the tactical approach that won him some praise last season. RBNY didn’t win any trophies in 2017, but the 3-3-3-1 formation appeared to steady the team and provide its most competitive performances of the season.
What Marsch demonstrated against Phoenix was - at least in the short-term - he can put out a full line-up of players who have been together for at least a year or so, and who can make sense of each other’s roles in a given formation. That formation would appear to be the 3-3-3-1. That means Tyler Adams deployed at right wing back, and Bradley Wright-Phillips asked to tie together a rotating cast of attacking support in the final third.
The team lacked a finishing touch against Phoenix, but that could be attributed to the fact it is still finding its feet in preseason. Marsch’s first job in 2018 is to put out a side that can beat Olimpia over two legs in CCL. And right now, best we can tell, that seems most likely to translate into a team that will start 2018 looking a lot like the one that finished 2017.
2. Kemar Lawrence is hot right now
One player for whom the 3-3-3-1 seems to be a particularly promising set-up is RBNY left-back Kemar Lawrence.
Since he was absent from the start of preseason due to international duty, and has made it quite clear that he’s ready for the next step of his career, it is not unreasonable to question quite how ready for the new season Lawrence might be.
The evidence of his first televised preseason performance offered an answer to the question: very ready.
He was the main source of chances for the Red Bulls game could have easily been out of hand if they had gotten on the end of his crosses— Joseph Steen (@Jsteen15) February 11, 2018
Lawrence was active all night and a persistent threat with crosses from RBNY’s left flank. With three men at the back, he is given the freedom to attack more and worry about an exposed back line less. And it’s a role he seems to enjoy.
3. Listen to Red Bulls Radio
RBR’s Matt Harmon made a strong start to the 2018 season with a pre-match interview with Jesse Marsch that more or less answered the questions surrounding the team at the moment. In a nutshell: yes, the team wasn’t satisfied with its preseason last year and is trying to apply the lessons learned from that experience to this season; no, it has not been smooth sailing this year - visa issues have slowed down the process of getting some new signings fully integrated with the team.
The club’s in-house radio station isn’t going to ask every question fans have about the team, nor would Marsch necessarily provide an answer anyway. But the broadcast for this game was a reminder that RBNY is well-served by its communications staff - and RBR in particular offers timely and relevant insight into the team’s activities.
When Matt Harmon speaks, give him a listen.