The New York Red Bulls came back from the offseason as if they had never left. Two decisive victories over CA Pantoja in the Round of 16 CONCACAF Champions League saw the same exciting high pressing system filled with quick passing and plenty of chance creation.
A first leg 2-0 away win in the Dominican Republic was capped off by a Daniel Royer goal after a beautiful assist from Kaku. The masterful Paraguayan put in two world class performances against Pantoja, suppressing the transfer rumors that were stirred up just weeks earlier.
Red Bull Arena saw a wonderful display of football in the second leg. Long Branch native Sean Davis opened the scoring with a beautiful headed goal. A second goal from Royer sealed the deal for the Red Bulls and Andreas Ivan netted in the 75th to give Red Bull fans some second half excitement.
Chris Armas has to be pleased with what he saw on the field over the 5-0 aggregate win. Kaku showed he has not lost a step and Bradley Wright-Phillips showed that, despite not scoring a goal, he is still as hungry and determined as ever to make an impact.
BWP was full of energy over the two legs and played a hard fought 67 minutes at Red Bull Arena. He should be set to go as the Red Bulls shift their focus to MLS play.
The Red Bulls will be taking on an all too familiar opponent in the Columbus Crew. The two teams met back in November during the MLS playoffs. A 3-0 second leg win at Red Bull Arena pushed the Red Bulls past the Crew in an electric match.
Columbus has since played in preseason matches, most recently beating FC Cincinnati 3-0. Gyasi Zardes continues to score goals for the Crew as he netted a brace in the win while Portuguese midfielder Pedro Santos also added a goal.
The one glaring change from last season that the Crew have to deal with is the sale of Zack Steffen to Manchester City. Joe Bendik was signed to Columbus two weeks after the official transfer of Steffen, but his time at Orlando City was not exactly fruitful.
Steffen has produced some truly magical moments in Columbus, quite literally saving the crew numerous times last season. His display against the Red Bulls in the first leg of the playoff series kept one of the most potent offenses off the scoresheet, so his transfer to the Premier League will certainly be felt this upcoming season.
The Red Bulls made a few transfers of their own, but more importantly have a few key players returning from injury over the next few weeks. Kyle Duncan made his return last match against Pantoja, nearly scoring a late goal.
Duncan will give the Red Bulls some much needed depth at fullback while also giving Michael Murillo a run for his money. Florian Valot is also due to return to the field soon as well, while Vincent Bezecourt tweeted back on January 24th that he would be returning to the field “very soon”.
With the additions of Mathias Jorgensen and Marcus Epps in the offseason as well as Sean Nealis and Roy Boateng in the draft, the Red Bulls are set up nicely for the upcoming season.
The match against Columbus will not be prioritized over the CONCACAF Champions League fixture on Tuesday, March 5th against Santos Laguna. Expect Armas to make many changes to the lineup that faced Pantoja on Wednesday.
Players like Brian White, Epps, and Nealis should see their first starts of the season, or at least expect serious minutes. Santos is a monumental task for the Red Bulls in the quarter finals, as they beat their last opponents 11-2 on aggregate. Armas may have to sacrifice some key players in order to rest them for the first leg.
That may not be what some Red Bulls fans want to hear going into the first MLS match of the year, but silverware is the ultimate goal. An early season loss can be made up, but a heavy defeat in the first leg cannot.
Regardless, MLS fans around the world welcome the league back with eager eyes and hopeful hearts. Last season produced some remarkable moments for the Red Bulls, and this season is looking to be just as promising.