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Matchday Cork Board: the best squad Gerhard Struber has ever coached?

The new Red Bulls manager won’t be able to complain he wasn’t given the tools needed to turn New York’s fortunes around

Fulham v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

There was a typically impassioned reaction from the Red Bulls twitterati earlier this month when certain league office chat show posited that Gerhard Struber was somehow disappointed by the players signed for him this offseason. After all, the Austrian had publicly complained about a lack of quality signings at his previous club Barnsley FC and ostensibly would never have moved across an ocean to a transitional squad unless signing some of the most elite players available at MLS level was promised. Yet again the New York Red Bulls had double-crossed not only Struber but, more importantly, league in-house media.

The problem with this theory is that not only are the ten (as of press time) first team signings recruited for Struber by Red Bulls sporting chief Kevin Thelwell among the precise type of signings that a coach from his deep background in the Red Bull sporting apparatus would covet, they’re more than likely the most talented players Struber will have ever deployed.

Struber’s short managerial career thus far has been one of the 44-year-old overachieving with unfashionable small town clubs heavily outgunned by their competition. Struber’s first job at Austrian minnows Wolfsberger AC (where he overachieved with 4 points in the Europa League group stage) saw him molding success out of a group of middling Austrian pros accented by a small handful of older foreign journeymen. Struber did himself no further favors with his next stop in Barnsley, a club struggling after a promotion to England’s cutthroat second division.

As Struber himself lamented, the team he saved from what once seemed like assured relegation last year was rather limited even by English second division standards. During his first transfer window in Yorkshire the club brought in Kilian Ludewig on loan from RB Leipzig as well as Marcel Ritzmaier and Michael Sollbauer, former pupils of Struber’s at Wolfsberger. Given this history, one might expect Struber to continue to drag along these already-vetted players to another supposedly austere and depleted project in New York. But no Wolfsberger or Barnsley players (or coaches for that matter) have been brought in, despite several being available - Ritzmaier was unsettled enough at Barnsley to be loaned to Rapid Vienna late last year.

Instead Struber has seen a conveyor belt of quietly-prized players on the upsides of their careers brought in for him by Red Bulls sporting chief Kevin Thelwell. While none are the type of name signings seemingly always expected out of a New York operation, they are in almost all cases difficult signings that required deliberate scouting and some harrowing administrative work to make happen. Instead of sleepwalking into an all-too-obvious pursuit of all-too-uninterested former academy product Chris Gloster, the Red Bulls jumped through hoops for the hungry and enticed Andrew Gutman. While some called for the Red Bulls to better scan the MLS free agent wire for established veterans, they instead turned to teenage Venezuelan set piece wizards and US youth national teamers stuck on the fringes of Europe. The players brought in are the precise type of Red Bull-style hidden early-career gems hungry to prove they belong at a higher level than where the GmbH first found them.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship - Molineux
Former Wolverhampton Wanderes sporting executive Kevin Thelwell has made the Red Bulls the busiest team in MLS this offseason
Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

Struber has effusively remarked on the athletic qualities of center back Andrés Reyes, signed ahead of Belgian league suitors after Inter Miami failed in negotiations to bring him back for a second loan from Colombian giants Atlético Nacional. The Austrian who found himself frustrated by the limits of Cauley Woodrow has never been able to deploy a striker quite like Fábio Gomes Netto, the 6’4” second-leading goalscorer in the last full Brazilian second division season. While right back Tom Edwards is yet to appear with the team during preseason due likely to immigration red tape, the idea of signing a 22-year-old former Stoke City Player Of The Year surely would’ve been a no-brainer for Struber were he still building from the cellar of the Championship at Barnsley. Indeed, to the extent that Struber is leaning on old cronies from Austria, it’s with the signing of still-nascent Salzburg foreign prospects such as Malian youth international Youba Diarra and projected starting goalkeeper Carlos Coronel, a Brazilian with UEFA Champions League experience. These very much are the high-level signings Struber was not able to obtain at previous stations.

This is all before touching on a secondary misconception of many outside predictions for the Red Bulls - that the existing squad (which finished 6th in the conference last year despite coaching malpractice and upheaval) was somehow substandard. Defensive centerpiece Aaron Long is a fixture with the United States national team whose reputation has risen to the extent that English champions Liverpool came in for a bid this past winter. French veteran (yes, he’s somehow 28 now) Florian Valot was a plausible candidate for league comeback player of the year last season. Sean Davis was an every-week starter in a side that set the league’s regular season points record just three years ago. Even if the Red Bulls hadn’t been recruiting throughout Europe and South America this summer, this would be a group of domestic players with enough quality to compete in MLS under an astute manager.

Which of course, it’s worth arguing that the most important transfer made by the Red Bulls in the burgeoning Struber era is that of Gerhard Struber himself. Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz himself helped to pull strings for a $2.5 million release fee paid to Barnsley for Struber’s services. Between the arsenal of young hungry talent recruited for him and the high regard shown for his own managerial skills, there could and probably should be pressure on Struber to reach his frequently-referenced “ambition-goals” that he and Thelwell came to New York for. Don’t let MLS podcasts or Struber himself fool you - this is a team built to win starting tonight.

Opponent: Sporting Kansas City (0-0-0, manager Peter Vermes)

Kickoff: 8pm - Red Bull Arena, Harrison

Television: MSG Network

Projected Red Bulls XI: Coronel, Gutman, Tarek, Long, Duncan, Davis, Casseres, Valot, Clark, Royer, Fabio

Matchday Miscellany

  • As of this morning Frankie Amaya is still officially an FC Cincinnati player, but nobody would blame you for thinking otherwise. FCC beat reporter Laurel Pfahler reported last night that Amaya was in the Tri State Area ahead of tonight’s opener, news compounded by observers noting that Amaya was listed as a Red Bulls squad member (in a supplemental roster slot without any salary cap hit, no less) on the league’s official web database for a moment on Friday evening. All signs point to the Californian midfielder joining the Red Bulls imminently, though maybe not early enough for tonight’s opener.
  • Patryk Klimala’s transfer to the Red Bulls is in a similar everything-but-the-MLS-letterhead holding pattern. After a week where reports in Poland and Scotland confirming the imminent transfer piled up, the 22-year-old striker was confirmed to be making the move to New York by Celtic FC interim manager John Kennedy at a Friday press conference.
  • Sporting Kansas City are in a goalkeeping crisis ahead of tonight’s game. Veteran custodian Tim Melia will miss tonight’s match through injury, and each senior backup including former Red Bull (yes, he was here last year) Kendall McIntosh is also dealing with a knock. Kansas City (or “Kansas” as Gerhard Struber consistently referred to them in this week’s press conference) will be turning to 19-year-old reserve John Pulskamp, an LA Galaxy academy product. Pulskamp will be making his senior professional debut and, as New Yorkers can respect, is apparently rather loud.
  • The Red Bulls on the other hand are injury free according to comments made by Struber at Thursday’s press conference. Quotes from an Austrian media report about Struber this week stated that the Red Bulls coaching staff and squad have received COVID-19 vaccinations in recent weeks.
  • The Red Bulls typically fare well on the opening weekend as of late. They’ve lost only once in round one since the full energy drink soccer overhaul under Jesse Marsch in 2015.
  • Weather should be calm and in the 50s for a game rescheduled for a night kickoff. Struber has been training the team at night this week to help maintain proper physical rhythms.
  • Want a refresher on Gerhard Struber’s managerial tendencies as he rolls out the first Red Bulls team fully in his image? Read our Struberfest guide from last year to get a rundown of the short-but-eventful tactical history of the Austrian.

Best Bald Player In Sporting KC History: Aurelien Collin

Red Bulls fans, bulk razor dealers, and foreign intelligence agencies alike will be familiar with French-Venezuelan center back Aurelien Collin, who was the backbone of Kansas City’s most recent championship team in 2013. After injuries and poor agent advice left the powerful center back with a stunted backpacking career across the periphery of Europe, he has since established himself as a respected MLS veteran preparing to enter his 10th North American season with Philadelphia after a stint with the Red Bulls ended in 2018. Here is a clip of his last stretch of significant match highlights set to MTV reality show b-roll music from 2003:

Neutral Game Of The Week: Orlando-Atlanta

Most attention has been given to the de facto community shield match taking place this weekend between Columbus and Philadelphia, but the latest pulse check of the chippy rivalry between Orlando City and Atlanta United could set the tone for the conference and league early on.

Both were relative surprises last season, with Princy Award-sweeping club Atlanta bottoming out under the now-departed Frank de Boer and a once-bumbling Orlando setup surging into contender status with a squad revamped by new manager Oscar Pareja. An immediate matchup under a new context - with less pandemic disruption and Atlanta being rebuilt by Gabriel Heinze as well as boosted by the return of Josef Martinez - could give a clue where two potential Eastern Conference powers could find themselves in the league pecking order.

Were last season’s results a pandemic-scrambled mess that aren’t worth taking into account? Will harmony under Heinze be enough to make Atlanta dangerous again? Will either of these clubs ever come close to matching Charleston Battery’s legacy in Southeastern and national soccer? Tune in (or stream it, wait to see what Reddit says about it, whatever you do) this afternoon to find out.

Match Prediction: 3-3 draw

Though many observers have picked the Red Bulls for a somewhat easy win tonight thanks to Kansas City’s fitness issues, in this obligatory matchday column we prefer to ignore the opposition like Stuart Pearce. The most complicated aspect of Gerhard Struber’s scheme that takes the longest to learn could be the complex movement of the defensive line, as noted by Andres Reyes in OaM earlier this week. This early version of Struber’s Red Bulls could find itself in moments where the entire team gets caught off guard in a stretched moment, as one could deduce happened from listening to Erik Sorga’s goal Sunday. In a game that promises to be more open than most opponents permit in Harrison, both sides are likely to get many rusty hacks at goal that in some cases will trickle in against yet-to-gel early season backlines.

Once A Metro managing editor Ben Cork breaks down who’s hot, who’s hurt, and who’s bald for the Red Bulls in the Matchday Cork Board. Have an interesting fact or question about an upcoming game that you want pinned on the board? Find him on Twitter (@corkinho) or send him an old-fashioned email at bencorkOAM@gmail.com

What are your predictions or factors to watch for in tonight’s game? Sound off in the comments below...