What we learned from our first glimpse of Jesse Marsch's new Red Bulls
The hiccups were bound to be there.
It was Feb. 22 and the first competitive game in months, but the New York Red Bulls probably left us with as many questions as answers after its CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal round opener on Wednesday night.
The result was a 1-1 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps that has to be considered disappointing for New York, which had home field advantage and was certainly the favorite going into the game. The performance was a mixed bag - a timid, less-than-inspiring first 45 minutes followed by a much better second half, helped in part by a stupid red card for Vancouver’s Cristian Techera.
It was our first look at the Red Bulls redux: Dax McCarty-less and in a 4-4-2 formation. The effects were not totally clear, and they probably won’t be for a few more games. But what we saw was a free-floating role for Sacha Kljestan, who played out on the right (and then the left) but often pinched in to find the ball. It amounted to a stacked midfield with Kljestan and opposite wide midfielder Daniel Royer both sliding inside more often and inviting the fullbacks to get up the field and overlap.
The formation change will likely put a heavy demand on communication defensively, and especially against wingers with the pace of Vancouver’s Kekuta Manneh and Alphonso Davies, both of whom created problems in the first half. But the formation itself doesn’t change the roles too much. Sean Davis and Felipe sat deeper in the midfield to provide defensive balance, and Kljestan, Royer, Veron and Bradley Wright-Phillips were the front four looking to combine and create.
The goal, ultimately, is to have Veron and Wright-Phillips working off each other to create more opportunities in the forward line. That chemistry will be built over time. The risk is pulling Kljestan out of the central role where he thrived last year, and for a player, Veron, who has yet to live up to the Designated Player tag. But really, Kljestan looked like he had the freedom to move and find the ball. His passing was less of the short, quick combinations near the box and more the probing type, looking for the deadly ball that would find BWP or Veron. Those combinations on top of the box from last season will probably increase as Veron and Wright-Phillips play more together and become more comfortable with their movements.
There were flashes of how it would work. In the second half, Kljestan pulled left toward the ball and combined with Veron, while Wright-Phillips lingered centrally, ready to spring into the play. A few times, the combinations nearly unlocked a Whitecaps team sitting deep inside its half to preserve the draw. Vancouver stayed compact, though, and held on for a very good result on the road.
The bright spots for New York: Signs the young players ready for the bigger roles. Davis didn’t have a huge game, but he showed the quality that has Marsch so confident in the 24-year-old. Justin Bilyeu looked good on the left side and provides solid depth, while Aaron Long may end up being the newest starting center back for the Red Bulls.
It wouldn’t be enough for the Red Bulls on Wednesday, and it’s not clear this team is any better than the one from last year. But New York again looks like a team capable of contending, and the combination play in the final third is bound to improve.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.