The sight of Kaku raking a first-time ball to an onrushing Florian Valot to open the scoring on Saturday had to have been a cathartic one to any New York Red Bulls fan pining for a return to the nearly-unconscious brilliance of the 2018 campaign. But while it was this echo of past glory that put RBNY over the top in their 1-0 win over Atlanta, much of the game illustrated what is new about a setup in Harrison that appears to building a future again.
It was a dream rollout for a reconfigured Red Bulls backline featuring Jason Pendant (signed days prior to the covid-19 suspension) making an efficient debut on the left side and Kyle Duncan continuing his torrid late 2019 form on the right. Goalkeeper David Jensen ended up not needing the cosmically-volatile red hat used in his March debut to make multiple confident saves to keep Atlanta off the board. Particularly notable in the defensive setup chosen by Chris Armas was Amro Tarek expertly partnering Aaron Long in place of Tim Parker. While the condensed nature of the MLS is Back schedule may have motivated the benching of veteran leader Parker for rotational purposes, the Long Island native’s shaky substitute performance in the game’s closing moments should only strenghten Tarek’s standing.
The active, assured defending on display was always going to be necessary with how the game unfolded. While Red Bulls have traditionally been more than willing to cede possession since the Ralfball revolution of 2015, the 31% possession rate registered Saturday against Atlanta raised eyebrows. The extremity of these numbers and Armas’ postgame focus on constricting space and counter-attacking against a offense-oriented Atlanta side indicates an encouragingly deliberate gameplan after a 2019 season in which RBNY’s tactical approach appeared compromised and confused in an attempt to move towards a more possession-oriented style.
Other signs coming from Orlando this weekend indicate a plan finally coming into place after the on-and-off-field indecision of 2019. In his first official press conference on Friday evening, new Red Bulls head of sport Kevin Thelwell stated that he believes in a “flattened” approach to decision-making and, at least for now in this early part of his reign, the club is operating with a group-minded strategy all the way down the first team. He indicated a plan to continue relying on sporting director Denis Hamlett for his knowledge of MLS roster rules and extensive network of contacts in the North American professional scene. He mentioned the commitment and detail-oriented approach of head coach Armas. A bench staff that appeared stretched thin much of last year was conspicuously joined on the touchline by new data/video analyst Natasha Patel, hired from Southampton of the Premier League late last year.
This emerging management-by-committee structure is maybe not one that RBNY fans conditioned to domineering Bradleys and Backes and Petkes would intuitively choose, it is certainly a marked improvement over a technical leadership that appeared rudderless and stretched thin since the departure of Jesse Marsch in mid-2018. While this new structure may very well have emerged as a makeshift adjustment rather than a holistic vision, the Red Bull New York management operation is taking another new approach to competing in Major League Soccer, just like the old days.