The New York Red Bulls played the best soccer in MLS for much of the 2015 MLS regular season, but the team's second Supporters' Shield in three seasons offered little consolation to a fan base that was hoping 20 years was the charm for a club still seeking its first MLS Cup title.
It wasn't though, and the only thing more painful than seeing such a tremendous season fall short of the ultimate goal was just how close the Red Bulls came to staying alive in the 2015 playoffs. A Bradley Wright-Phillips shot hit off the post in the dying seconds of the New York's Eastern Conference final loss to Columbus, leaving the Red Bulls to spend an offseason thinking about how close they came to a trip to the MLS Cup final.
"That last game sits with us. I think the way that it ended and how close we came, it's something that all of us don't need huge reminders of because that feeling is still pretty fresh," Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch told Goal USA. "I think we feel strongly that we have a good team. We have good players, a good organization, an identity, we understand what we're about and understand how to commit to it.
"Do we want to find a way to get our club over the hump? There's no doubt, but what's important for us is not to have these huge grandiose goals, but to understand the steps that it takes to get there," Marsch said. "That's what we committed to last year and it's what we're committed to again this year."
The Red Bulls have the look of a team more than capable of maintaining its place as the top team in the Eastern Conference, though staying there will rely heavily on how the team's defense takes shape after the departure of standout center back Matt Miazga. His transfer to Chelsea, coupled with the torn ACL suffered by veteran French defender Damien Perrinelle in last year's playoffs, means a new central defense will start the season.
Ronald Zubar will have the task of leading that defense, something he was expected to do last year before injuries cost him nearly half the season and left him as the team's third choice behind Miazga and Perrinelle.
"I think he was hurt for probably five months total last year. That disturbed the rhythm of him establishing himself within our team, but I think when he played, he played quite well," Marsch said of Zubar. "Our record when he played was very good. We know he's a good player, we know he's an established guy. He brings a lot of poise to our team. He's very clear on how we want to play and he has good leadership qualities.
"I think, in all ways, we're identified ways to keep Ronald healthy and I think that he can really emerge this year as a really good center back. We're going to need him."
Offensively, the Red Bulls should remain one of the most high-powered attacks in MLS, and after a season that saw them lead the league in goals scored, Marsch wants to see his offense develop even more versatility and depth. All of the team's key attackers are back, and that continuity should only help the goals keep pouring in.
"I think that a lot of our players showed a lot of growth last year, and now we're planning on using different formations and different players and really building into the sophistication of what we're doing," Marsch said. "How good can we be? How far can we take this? At what level can we perform to say that we understand what this takes and we want to get better and better?"
The Red Bulls appear ready to use more of a two-forward system than in recent years, with Argentine attacker Gonzalo Veron having the potential to partner with Bradley Wright-Phillips as a forward, or potentially work his way into the starting lineup as a winger in the team's traditional 4-2-3-1 formation. Marsch sounds committed to making the Red Bulls less predictable, and capable of playing a wider variety of systems in 2016.
That diversity in attack could help the Red Bulls stay ahead of the pack in an Eastern Conference that has seen several teams make major changes in the offseason.
"There's a lot of teams in the East that have elevated themselves,' Marsch said. "And that's going to make the task on us even harder."
NEW YORK RED BULLS SEASON PREVIEW
2015 FINISH: First in Eastern Conference (18-10-6), eliminated in conference final
NOTABLE ADDITIONS: D Gideon Baah, F Brandon Allen, F Alex Muyl, M Derrick Etienne, D Zach Carroll, D Justin Bilyeu
NOTABLE LOSSES: D Matt Miazga, D Roy Miller, M Dane Richards, D Anthony Wallace, GK Santiago Castano
TOP NEWCOMER:Gideon Baah. The Ghanaian center back will be expected to step in and start for a Red Bulls side that must overcome the loss of Matt Miazga. Baah was a standout in Finland, and has represented the Ghana national team.
PLAYER TO WATCH:Sacha Kljestan. The Red Bulls playmaker was a driving force behind the club's successful winning of the Supporters' Shield last season, and he could be even more effective with a full season under his belt playing in Marsch's system.
It should be noted his second half of the season was much better than the first half, so that momentum could lead Kljestan to an MVP-caliber campaign in 2016. The Red Bulls midfield should be even better this year, with Veron and Shaun Wright-Phillips being more settled into MLS. If those two can elevate the attack, Kljestan should benefit by having even more room to operate and create.
There may not seem like much room for improvement for a team that won the Supporters' Shield and led MLS in goals scored last season, but Marsch has plenty to work on, starting with a defense that will be much different after the departure of Miazga and injury to Perinnelle. Zubar must live up to the billing he received when he arrived last year, while Baah will need to provide the speed in central defense to help balance Zubar.
Offensively, the Red Bulls could be even better than last year, with Veron expected to take on the kind of role expected of a designated player. If Veron turns into an impact player, the New York offense will be tough to stop. But the only way the Red Bulls capture that elusive MLS Cup title is if the central defense develops into a strength, and doesn't wind up becoming a weakness.
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