The 2019 New York Red Bulls are missing something. Their season has been a puzzle that adds pieces just when the picture is coming together. There have been uncontrollable factors: injuries and a congested schedule, and consequences of a conservative off-season: thinner roster depth forcing starter-minutes on raw players.
In this season, where a Bradley Wright-Phillips groin injury drags out for months and Tim Parker and Aaron Long have not partnered since May 8, New York has done what it prides itself on: relying on the next man up.
The peak moment of that was against Atlanta United on May 19, when Sean Nealis sprung a counter-attack for the undermanned Red Bulls: a match-winning charge that started and ended with two MLS SuperDraft picks. There was also a sweet strike from polarizing veteran Connor Lade to win against FC Cincinnati on April 28. These moments were statements for the Red Bulls, ammunition against the naysayers.
But the lasting images of those same players in this Gold Cup break are rooted in regret: an overwhelmed Nealis frozen by the wizardry of Philadelphia’s Ilsinho, a mortified Lade helpless as New England’s Teal Bunbury pick-sixes his back pass and eliminates the Red Bulls from the U.S. Open Cup.
This stage last season – when the Red Bulls were playing scorching-hot soccer – is a long way ago. Reports of Jesse Marsch’s European departure were still being dismissed. Florian Valot was yet to suffer his first of two ACL tears over the last 12 months. Omir Fernandez had only just finished his final exams, and still had one more season to play at Wake Forest.
It may be only one calendar year, but the situation is drastically different for New York. Chris Armas has become an easy target; his team stuck in neutral at the same point where last season’s Red Bulls were accelerating at top speed. But this dip in form is, in fact, not uncommon for reigning Supporters’ Shield champions.
Three of the last four Shield winners not named ‘Red Bulls’ missed out on the postseason the following year. Those three teams: the 2013 San Jose Earthquakes, 2017 FC Dallas and 2018 Toronto FC, are reflected in this year’s middling group from Harrison.
The parallel between Toronto FC last season and New York in 2019 is the injury toll, particularly at the very top. Each team set the MLS points record in its Shield campaign with a perfect storm of stars shining, young players exceling and signings seamlessly integrating. But above all that, both teams were healthy.
Now, the Red Bulls are experiencing a small taste of what Toronto went through last season, when goal talisman Jozy Altidore and defensive skipper Drew Moor only played in nine league games each. 2018 Defender of the Year Aaron Long has not featured in over a month and 100-plus goal scorer Wright-Phillips in over two months.
The link between 2017 FC Dallas and the current Red Bulls is the loss of a dynamic talent without replacement. Mauro Diaz may have been the orchestrator, but Fabian Castillo possessed speed and guile on the wing that consistently created havoc, giving Diaz an electrifying outlet during their 2016 Shield-Open Cup Double season.
Cut from a similar cloth as New York – low-spending and academy-driven – Dallas tried to search from within to fill Castillo’s void, but no one could replicate what the Colombian provided. The Red Bulls did the same this off-season when selling Tyler Adams – a generational talent – to RB Leipzig with no incoming transfer beside Marc Rzatkowski, who New York had on loan in 2018.
The similarity between the 2013 Earthquakes and 2019 Red Bulls is less tangible, but still there. The 2012 Earthquakes were not the most talented team, and nor were the 2018 Red Bulls, but there was a solid spine and impeccable balance to both groups.
In San Jose, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon combined to form a rugged forward tandem that attracted chaos and late-game magic the Earthquakes thrived under. There was a similar perfect harmony last season when Tim Parker and Aaron Long partnered together on the backline.
Parker arrived in a trade and flew straight from Vancouver to Tijuana on March 4. There, he started alongside Long only two days later and helped the Red Bulls earn just the third win for an MLS club in Mexico in 49 CONCACAF Champions League tries.
But like the Goonie spirit fizzled out for San Jose, so too has the invincible aura around the Red Bulls backline. Part of New York’s unraveling has been due to injury – a common roadblock toward retaining a Supporters’ Shield, something that has not been done since the Galaxy’s Shield-MLS Cup double in 2011.
Although a large reason for it is the passivity from New York’s front office this winter. The most meaningful acquisition, Amro Tarek – undeniably a shrewd signing – simply fills the vacancy left behind by the departures of Fidel Escobar and Aurelien Collin.
The bigger hole – in central midfield – and the thinnest parts of the roster – forward and outside back – were largely neglected, and with untimely absences of Wright-Phillips and Kemar Lawrence, cost the Red Bulls two trophies so far in 2019.
Armas has, to this point, never had as talented a team as Marsch had to start 2018. In his first practice, he lost Valot – whose assists per 90 minutes was third-highest on the team – for the season. He was without a Best XI defender in the postseason and Champions League, a prolific goal scorer in the Open Cup, and a United States national team starter has not been adequately replaced.
This is not to absolve Armas of all blame for three knockout exits and a lackluster start to the season, but it should put the past 12 months in context. He managed to earn a better points-per-game down the stretch in 2018 (2.04) than Marsch did to start that season (1.92), with only Andreas Ivan added to help account for the loss of Valot.
Since then, roster depth has gotten thinner, and the preferred 11 has been ravaged with injuries. Despite it all, the Red Bulls are in playoff position which, strangely enough, has not been the norm for Supporters’ Shield winners in recent years.
Still, New York is crying out for summer signings to get back to its 2018 pomp. Sporting Director Denis Hamlett is reportedly in Uruguay looking for answers because, if 2019 has taught the Red Bulls anything, it’s that the solutions to their problems will, in fact, not come from within.