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A Couple Or Three Things: the confusing climate in Carolina

Heat, formational follies, and the FIFA calendar leads to downfall in Charlotte

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Charlotte FC Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

In an increasingly familiar refrain in 2022, the New York Red Bulls saw a chance to reach the top of the table turn into a sour moment of hand-wringing and reflection. After Saturday’s 2-0 disappointment against a floundering Charlotte team, OaM tells ya a couple or three things about what comes next…

Will there be another summer swoon?

Summer officially arrived for the Red Bulls on Saturday in Charlotte. With the temperature hanging around 85 degrees through the afternoon, the Carolina sun beamed off the artificial turf at Bank of America Stadium and seemed to zap the energy crucial to New York’s pressing and transition tactics. Gerhard Struber admirably declined to use the conditions as an excuse for the team’s performance. But Struber’s assessment that a dip in energy let the game slip from New York — combined with postgame comments by captain Sean Nealis — implied that the Red Bulls struggled in Saturday’s climate to impose their typical game on a Charlotte team they demolished 3-1 just two weeks ago.

Throughout the energy drink soccer era that began with Jesse Marsch, New York has seen inconsistent form during the summer months that depict a team that loses its edge in high temperatures. Struber has been adamant about the need to maintain energy for both defensive pressing and getting numbers into the box to score on transitions, using it as a rationale for his trigger-happy substitution and rotation tendencies.

Though they won’t all be on an artificial surface that intensifies the heat, there are likely to be even hotter games for Struber’s team over the next few months. As OaM contributor Eric Friedlander pointed out last night, there were many parallels with the team’s wilting loss in Miami last month in which New York was incapable of chasing from behind in such hot and humid conditions. The team will not be abandoning its pressing identity anytime soon, especially in the shadow of longtime Red Bull executive Jochen Schneider’s announcement as sporting chief on Friday. But Struber has been working in America for two years now, and cannot have his gameplans rely solely on having “every player at their personal border” in summer afternoon games where it is not physically possible.

Lineup and formation shifts holding back continuity and chemistry

As noted above, Struber’s go-to remedy for energy levels dipping below his standard has been heavy use of his bench throughout the season. The Austrian frequently changes the team’s personnel and formation at halftime, and Saturday was no different as linking forward Omir Fernandez was replaced by target man Ashley Fletcher and the defensive structure changed from a conventional 4-man backline to a 5-man line using John Tolkin and Lewis Morgan as wingbacks.

As has been typical of the Red Bulls in 2022, the new structure struggled to coalesce and manufacture chances as they chased the game. Players remain hesitant on the ball, seemingly waiting to find out what their teammates might do rather than intuitively predicting expected runs. As mentioned by erstwhile OaM contributor and View From 202 host Brit Byrd last month, putting players in such different roles week to week also erodes accountability and standards, with players able to give unfamiliarity with their latest position as a valid excuse for poor performances.

The Red Bulls boss does at least seem conscious of the issues at hand. In a recent press conference, Struber himself cited the recent “Curtin Theorem” study by American Soccer Analysis stating that selecting drastically new lineups week to week puts teams and their form at risk — even if he did so to double down on his preference for heavy rotation. But with the schedule loosening up after a busy May, Struber must find a base setup for his team that allows chemistry to grow and standards to become more clear.

What happens with Cristian Cásseres might decide the season

Few players have been more consistent victims of such positional tinkering than Cristian Cásseres Jr. Under four different managers in his New York career, the Venezuela international has been given a grand tour of modern midfield tactics — being used as a stay-at-home 6, a marauding 8, a goal-hanging 10, and even as a makeshift winger or striker at various points in his New York career.

But no matter where Cásseres is deployed on the field, his aggressive style on both sides of the ball tends to raise the level of the team’s play, and his absence for international duty was felt perhaps even more strongly than Aaron Long’s on Saturday. Gerhard Struber specifically cited Cásseres and his energy as something the team could have used in Charlotte, and the manager will be desperate to get him back into his team’s spine next week against Toronto.

But how many more games Struber will get to plug Cásseres in is unclear. On the heels of his being mentioned as a potential overseas transfer in an aside by MLS reporter Tom Bogert last week, the timing is beginning to feel tight for the 22-year-old Cásseres to make the next step in his career. Struber stated this week that he would “fight” to keep his current team intact over the coming summer transfer, but the powerful forces of the transfer market might overwhelm such a desire.