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New York Red Bulls MLS 2019 Preview

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Thoughts on what lies ahead for RBNY in 2019.

Atlanta United FC v New York Red Bulls: Eastern Conference Finals - Leg 2 Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The New York Red Bulls’ 2019 season began on February 20 with a 2-0 away win over Atletico Pantoja in the opening round of this year’s CONCACAF Champions League. It can be assumed that RBNY will prioritize CCL for as long as it remains in that competition, which may mean the opening rounds of the club’s 2019 MLS campaign have something of a B-team flavor to them.

Nonetheless, the Red Bulls’ 2019 MLS season will start on March 2 against Columbus Crew, whether the club chooses to rest key starters for CCL or not. In advance of that opening game of the regular season, here’s a look at what we might expect from RBNY in 2019.

How did 2018 go for RBNY?

Very well, thanks for asking.

2018 MLS Regular Season: 1st (Supporters’ Shield winner)

71 pts; 22-7-5; Goals For - 62; Goals Against - 33

2018 MLS Cup Playoffs: Eastern Conference Final

Eastern Conference Semifinal: RBNY 3-1 Columbus Crew (aggregate score)

Eastern Conference Final: RBNY 1-3 Atlanta United (aggregate score)

2018 US Open Cup: Round of 16

4th round: RBNY 4-0 NYCFC

Round of 16: Philadelphia Union 2-1 RBNY

2018 CONCACAF Champions League: Semifinals

Round of 16: RBNY 3-1 Olimpia (aggregate score)

Quarterfinals: RBNY 5-1 Tijuana (aggregate score)

Semifinals: RBNY 0-1 Chivas de Guadalajara

2018 was a banner year for RBNY. The team won its third Supporters’ Shield in six seasons, setting a new MLS points record along the way. Hard to fault a campaign that ends with the club staking a claim to being MLS’ Best Team Ever.

Winning a major knockout competition remains an unfulfilled ambition for the Red Bulls. But it would be churlish to say the team wasn’t competitive in tournament play in 2018: RBNY was ousted from CCL and MLS Cup by the eventual champion of each competition, and got bounced out of US Open Cup by a Philadelphia Union side that would go on to lose in the final.

What’s new in 2019?

The biggest change to the team is the absence of Tyler Adams, who has seemingly effortlessly transitioned from RBNY starter in MLS to RB Leipzig starter in Bundesliga. Losing a talent who does not look out of place at all in the starting lineup of a team that wants to win championships in Germany is significant for any side in MLS. Red Bull Global Soccer had apparently been planning Adams’ step up to big-time BuLi ball since 2016, so RBNY has had plenty of time to prepare for life without one of the hottest prospects to emerge from its academy system.

Perhaps inevitably, the prospective replacements for Adams in central midfield look underwhelming at this moment in time. Marc Rzatkowski is a familiar face to RBNY fans - since he was in and out the starting lineup last season - but he’s ultimately a seasoned pro who didn’t quite cut it at RB Salzburg. Cristian Casseres is a highly-rated prospect who played more or less a full season with NYRB II in USL last year, between regular stints with the Venezuela U-20 squad - but he’s still largely unfamiliar to fans focused on the RBNY first team. Further down the depth chart, Jean-Christophe Koffi has spent his career to date with the DC United academy and had half a season training with the Red Bulls in 2018 - and he’s likely a very different sort of player to Adams; so much so that it’s a bit of a stretch for this preview to cast him as a potential replacement.

The other big change happened mid-way through last season: Chris Armas has replaced Jesse Marsch as head coach. This will be Armas’ first full year in charge of RBNY, and his first opportunity to really put his stamp on the team. Not that the differences between himself and Marsch weren’t evident last season, but he took charge of a side that was playing well and his job for 2018 was mostly not to break what didn’t need a lot of fixing. This year, he’ll get sole credit or blame for the team’s achievements.

Starting a season without Jesse Marsch at the helm for the first time since 2014 is a new look for RBNY. And how the team copes without Tyler Adams is the biggest question hanging over the club at the moment.

The Red Bulls could reasonably feel a little aggrieved, however, if they cast an eye over this preview and find it dwelling on what the team doesn’t have this year - because the signature achievement of the club’s off-season has really been keeping last year’s team intact. RBNY will return 10 of its presumptive 2018 best XI for 2019, as well as most of the depth players from last year’s squad who appeared capable of forcing their way into the starting lineup for the long term.

It takes no small amount of effort to hold any team together in MLS, and it’s particularly difficult to do so when that team is coming off a really, really good year. RBNY handed big new contracts to center-back pairing Tim Parker and Aaron Long, and successfully deflected a spirited effort by Club America to poach the squad’s primary creative force, Kaku. Those moves and some canny long-term planning by Sporting Director Denis Hamlett mean that the Red Bulls are effectively missing just one starter from MLS’ Best Team Ever.

If the season goes well, RBNY will be applauded for investing in continuity and using the present glut of established starters as cover for doubling-down on its preferred strategy of developing talent. If the season does not go well, RBNY will stand accused of complacency and failing to make the key acquisitions necessary to make a great team greater.

Departures

Tyler Adams - transferred to RB Leipzig

Fidel Escobar - loan ended; not renewed

Aurelien Collin - released

Tommy Redding - released

Ethan Kutler - released

Kevin Politz - released

Carlos Rivas - released

Hassan Ndam - poached by FC Cincinnati in 2018 MLS Expansion Draft

Anatole Abang - transferred to Nantong Zhiyun

All told, nine players who finished 2018 on the first-team roster have been released or transferred in the build-up to the new season. Of those, only one - Tyler Adams - was a regular starter for RBNY last year.

Arrivals

Jean-Christophe Koffi - signed from DC United academy

Amro Tarek - signed from Orlando City

Marcus Epps - picked up in 2018 Waiver Draft; previously with Philadelphia Union

Marc Rzatkowski - released by RBNY at end of 2018 after loan from RB Salzburg ended; subsequently exited contract with RBS and signed as a free transfer with RBNY

Omir Fernandez - highly-rated attacking prospect from RBNY Academy; left college (Wake Forest) early to turn pro with the Red Bulls

Sean Nealis - first, perhaps only, of RBNY’s 2019 MLS SuperDraft selections to be signed to a first-team contract

Mathias Jorgensen - signed from Odense; reportedly for a seven-figure fee

The most significant signing of the off-season has to be Mathias Jorgensen.

It’s no longer uncommon for MLS teams to throw down seven-figure transfer fees to acquire players, but it is uncommon for that acquisition to be an 18-year-old prospect with limited experience at the senior pro level. Reportedly signed for around $2 million, Jorgensen’s signing represents how far the Red Bulls have come. It wasn’t too long ago that the club only paid that sort of fee for a start-now, Designated Player. In 2012, the Red Bulls paid a smaller amount for Tim Cahill, a star player expected to raise the club’s profile on and off the field. In 2015, a similar fee to that laid out for Jorgensen was spent on Gonzalo Veron, who was supposed to represent RBNY’s willingness to pay top dollar for top talent that fit its preferred style of play. In 2019, a top-dollar signing is now represented by Kaku - who reportedly cost the Red Bulls around three times what they paid for Veron - and $2 million has become an investment in a young player whose best work for the club might be a few years ahead yet.

New Jersey

Haha. The heading is funny cos the New York Red Bulls play in New Jersey...what’s that? Heard that one before, you say? Gosh. And it seemed like such a fresh idea.

On the subject of fresh ideas, RBNY has launched a new jersey (not even a smile? tough crowd) for the new season. In what may be a sports marketing first, the team introduced its new look for 2019 by admitting it might have made a mistake.

The Glitch Kit can be yours to keep with a quick visit to the BULLshop at Red Bull Arena or online.

New Coach

Chris Armas took over head coaching duties at RBNY last July, so he’s not really a new coach. But this will be his first full season in charge, and therefore his first season without being suspected of keeping “Jesse’s team” on the path charted by his predecessor.

Of course, since RBNY’s big idea for 2019 is largely to hold the 2018 squad together and have another run at all the trophies with (most of) MLS’ Best Team Ever - you can still call it Jesse’s team, if you’re so inclined.

But Armas is a different man with his own ideas. The difference between him and Marsch will become steadily more apparent as the season progresses and the memory and influence of RBNY’s preceding coach fades.

Stadium Enhancements

It wouldn’t be an MLS season without persistent chatter about attendance: good (hi there, Atlanta and Seattle), bad (wyd, Colorado and Chicago?), and indifferent - which tends to be the category occupied by RBNY.

The Red Bulls seems to attract more than their fair share of attendance chat, which is to say they attract some and arguably warrant very little, since they draw middle-of-the-pack crowds by MLS standards and the presence or absence of fans at Red Bull Arena doesn’t seem to correlate at all with ownership’s commitment to funding the squad.

Still, if you’re talking MLS, someone nearby is likely talking attendance. And in 2019 it may be more of a talking point than usual for RBNY - may God have mercy on us all.

There are two main reasons to believe 2019 will be a breakout year for Red Bull Arena attendance takes.

First, the PATH train - the most important public transport connection between New York City proper and RBNY’s home in Harrison, NJ - has decided to spend this year and next being less useful than it used to be at weekends.

Second, the Red Bulls have announced “Arena Enhancements” for the new season. Those enhancements include new and bigger video boards (yay!) and new technological gimmicks to malfunction at inconvenient times mobile ticketing and cashless payment initiatives. And - shoehorned into the same press release:

“Due to current and upcoming venue enhancements, select sections of Red Bull Arena will be closed, flexing capacity down during the 2019 season”.

Oh. So it’s going to be harder to get to RBA in 2019 and there will be fewer seats available than ever before? Fun times.

The Red Bulls have launched into their Year of Attendance Challenges with gusto, it would seem. Head over to the RBNY sub-reddit for discussions among season ticket holders who have been told their sections will be tarped for the year and they’ll need to find new seats for 2019.

Projected starting XI

The projected starting XI sort of picks itself at the moment: all 10 remaining starters from 2018 plus Marc Rzatkowski, who was a regular starter for the first team last season anyway.

buildlineup.com

Perhaps the more interesting question is whether how many games it will take before this vision of the club’s best XI is supplanted by a lineup featuring a few fresher faces. There is a lot of depth in the squad, and there should be a lot of opportunity for that depth to state its case in the early weeks of the season when RBNY is balancing MLS and CCL obligations.

Expectations for 2019

Expectations for RBNY in 2019 should be high. The team has won three Supporters’ Shields in six seasons. It made a very strong run in CCL in 2018. It has been to the Conference Finals of the MLS Cup playoffs in three of the last five years, and it was a US Open Cup finalist in 2017. This year’s squad is more or less last year’s Best Team Ever with a sprinkling of emerging talent to bolster depth. It is fair to expect this team to finish 2019 with at least one trophy because that surely is what it expects of itself.

The absolute minimum expectation must be qualification for the MLS playoffs, not least because this year the league is qualifying 14 out of 24 teams for the post-season. If the Red Bulls can’t crack the top seven of the 12-team Eastern Conference or win one the major tournaments they’re in this year, they’ve had a disastrous 2019.

Bonus Questions

Still here? Excellent. Thank you, and here are some additional thoughts on what might lie ahead for RBNY this year.

What’s the biggest concern for this season?

Stagnation, or “being Toronto FC”.

In 2017, TFC set a new single-season points record in MLS. In 2018, TFC finished 19th out of 23 teams in the league. Toronto’s plan for 2018 wasn’t all that different to RBNY’s. If anything, it was better on paper: keep the core of the Best Team Ever together AND add some promising reinforcements in key positions. Didn’t work out all for TFC, whose 2018 season nose-dived after an impressive run in CCL. Hasn’t got substantially better yet for TFC, already bounced out of the 2019 CCL tournament with a 5-1 aggregate loss to Panama’s Independiente de la Chorrera.

To set a single-season points record, a lot has to go right for any club. TFC’s 2018 serves as a reminder that a lot can equally go wrong.

So the biggest concern is a slapstick freefall from the league’s summit to its lowest point, for no discernible reason beyond the vague notion fate has turned against the Red Bulls.

How much will this roster change after the season starts?

It looks a lot like RBNY is backing itself to bring through a few starters from the group of largely unknown quantities it signed over the off-season. They don’t necessarily need to be starters this year for that strategy to be successful, and the Red Bulls are clearly banking on getting another season of high-caliber service out the remaining starters from the Best Team Ever.

So if all goes to plan, maybe the current roster doesn’t change tremendously at all. Maybe it will be boosted by a player or two promoted from the USL squad during the course of the year, with one or two depth options who don’t work out allowed to leave the first-team squad as the season progresses.

If all doesn’t go to plan; if results falter or starters lose form or fitness: the roster might stop looking full of potential and instead appear lightweight.

I don’t know how much this roster will change after the season starts, but I suspect that the Red Bulls believe they have a clear starting lineup in place with competition for places coming largely from younger pros seeking to establish themselves. There’s no evidence to suggest this team is looking to make one or two big-splash signings to add weight to the squad. It’s not even clear that the team feels any need to add seasoned pieces to parts of the roster that look a little threadbare (the defense appears to be two injuries shy of a crisis at the moment). So I expect any substantive additions to the roster to be a reaction to something having gone substantively wrong for RBNY.

Will this team care about CCL and US Open Cup?

Yes. Don’t take my word for it, though. Ask Kemar Lawrence.