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A Couple Or Three Things: romp past Charlotte turns into training session

An ideal pre-playoff result gives happy ending to Gerhard Struber’s touch-and-go second league campaign

Charlotte FC v New York Red Bulls
Charlotte’s Kerwin Vargas and New York’s Lewis Morgan battle on Sunday afternoon.
Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

After dodgy form in the home stretch, the New York Red Bulls ended the 2022 regular season in ideal fashion with a 2-0 victory over Charlotte FC in Harrison. With the league campaign now officially in the history books, OaM editor Ben Cork tells ya a couple or three things about what we learned on Sunday and over the course of the entire year.

Complete performance in the Red Bull style

Charlotte dominated possession in Sunday’s match — but as we know by now, that’s fine with Gerhard Struber and the Red Bulls.

Indeed the regular season finale felt like an ideal training session for New York heading into the playoffs, offering a rigorous 90 minutes of reps in finding pressing moments against a team that was using the ball every way possible. Although the clean sheet required some spectacular saves from the (yes) world-class Carlos Coronel, the team saw out a complete defensive performance in a manner that’s sure to boost morale after last weekend’s deflating late loss in Columbus.

The match also appeared to be a rare window into what the frequently-tinkering Struber thinks is his first-choice squad and formation. The team played in a 3-4-3 that made canny use of the wide backs who can be effectively described as midfielders in games like Sunday’s. After the game Struber mentioned difficulty in finding triggers when Charlotte began pulling the ball outside, causing him to adjust the formation to an asymmetrical look featuring Dylan Nealis/Kyle Duncan pushed high up the field while John Tolkin kept in more of a holding role. Meanwhile the presence of the now fully-fit Andres Reyes and Aaron Long allowed the back 3 to stretch across the width of the field and handle breakouts by wingers. Frankie Amaya and Daniel Edelman continued their makeshift central midfield partnership again, with Struber hinting after the match that he would probably continue with the pairing for the playoffs even with the potential returns of Dru Yearwood from suspension and Cristian Casseres from injury.

On the other side of the ball, the match was also a long-awaited coming out party for midseason loan signing Elias Manoel up top. After going scoreless in his first five matches with the club, the winger-turned-center forward notched a brace that proved to be the difference. Both finishes were well-taken and prime examples of the Red Bull system’s reliance on direct runs and pouncing on second balls. The first saw Elias blast a rebound off a Lewis Morgan shot into the roof of an empty net while Charlotte was slow to react. His second goal was pure individual magic in the Clint Dempsey “just try shit” vein, with the stocky Brazilian picking up a second ball turned back up field by Frankie Amaya and digging it out on the turn to launch past Charlotte keeper Pablo Sisniega.

But in the second half the Red Bulls also began to put together final third attacks that didn’t require such a (Ralph Cifaretto voice) bolt from beyond to create danger. Lewis Morgan and substitute Patryk Klimala combined on streaking counter attacks against Charlotte’s run of play, and the latter was set up with multiple classic Red Bull cutback crosses that forced point-blank saves by Sisniega. All in all, it was the perfect time for the team to put together its most complete performance in months.

Where does 2022 and Struber’s tenure fit in club history?

The Red Bulls close the 2022 regular season with 15 wins, 8 draws and 11 losses, enough for 4th place in the Eastern Conference. After once-threatening form plateaued over the summer, securing a home playoff game through top 4 status became the team’s objective over the second half of the season, one that was secured with last night’s win. The team’s home form was inconsistent and often morale-sapping, but a significantly better record on the road was enough to keep the team in the conference’s upper half through the entire year.

It’s enough to mark the 9th-best season in the club’s 27-year history from a points-per-game measurement, and an improvement over Gerhard Struber’s dicey first season in 2021. Struber’s extreme doubling down on Red Bull-style pressing tactics has proven to be an appropriate tonic for moving past the dour, confused Chris Armas era and has kept the club’s 13-year streak of playoff qualification secure. The Austrian has been shrewd in drilling a pressing and defending structure that causes problems for any opponent in the league, and has successfully integrated academy talents such as John Tolkin and Daniel Edelman into the squad after the team had struggled to solidify the bottom end of its roster in the Armas years.

But now, two years and roughly 20 first team transfers later, Struber’s work hasn’t really come close to the bar set by Jesse Marsch a half-decade earlier, when the Wisconsinite was able to re-tool the squad in his image and win a Supporters Shield in his first season before pursuing multiple league, Open Cup, and Champions League runs in the years that followed. Indeed, Struber’s 1.48 points per game in 68 league matches in charge even falls short of the 1.61 mark set by the aforementioned Chris Armas in his 61 matches that eventually ended in a sacking.

Struber’s tenure in New York (which could end fairly soon if one reads between the lines of his interviews in the Austrian press) is shaping up to be one that most resembles that of Hans Backe, the last European brought in by the Red Bulls to steady the club after malaise set in under the preceding manager. Backe didn’t win silverware during his three-year tenure that shared much of the same tactical rigidity and awkward personal touch that’s marked Struber’s time. But the Swede did leave the team in far better shape than he found it, building a foundation beneath superstar Thierry Henry that the motivational spirit of Mike Petke was able to carry to glory upon taking over. Struber has a chance this month to best Backe with an MLS Cup run, but the floor of his legacy seems somewhat intact, if underwhelming.