Analysis

Red Bulls still confident in changes despite disappointing start

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight year, New York is off to a slow start. And for a second straight year, the team seems intent to stay the course.

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The New York Red Bulls aren’t right.

Following big losses to Seattle and Houston and a draw with Real Salt Lake, there is plenty of reason to wonder just what’s going wrong with New York. Even in the first two games of the season, both wins, the Red Bulls left plenty to be desired.

They haven’t looked like their usual selves -- like the team that won the Supporters’ Shield in 2013 and 2015, and rattled off a 16-game regular-season unbeaten run to end the 2016 season. Those around the Red Bulls insist there is no reason to panic, especially considering the changes that have gone in and around the team. Things just need time. But it doesn’t mean the Red Bulls won’t look to shake things up a bit. Clearly, they need to.

“We’ve played a lot with two strikers and we don’t seem to be rewarding ourselves or getting ourselves enough leads with that,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch told reporters after Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo. “So we’ve got to visit a lot of different things right now and think about how to get better, because we’ve been a little bit flat and a little bit stagnant and a little bit same level of performance for too many games. I’ve got to think carefully and look carefully at how we get better.”

New York could shift back to a 4-2-3-1 formation. The team has looked somewhat lost in the 4-2-2-2 formation. There is a lack of energy, and for a formation that is supposed to give New York more defensive balance, allowing three and four goals in a pair of games isn’t good enough. Marsch is still looking for answers defensively, making changes to his back four to little avail.

We’re rushing things, not passing to the next guy to move things, we’re not setting up teammates. Watching video this week, we’re shoving balls into guys and not consciously thinking about the type of pass we’re delivering.

More worrisome, if Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips aren’t directly involved, New York doesn’t look that dangerous.

Compounding those issues is that in the last three games, Kljestan is finding the ball less in dangerous spots where he can impact the game. It’s part of the sacrifice of moving Kljestan out of a defined central role, and the two-striker formation hasn’t made up for that sacrifice. New York has looked rushed as a result, often forcing passes instead of staying patient in the build-up. The Red Bulls averaged 73 inaccurate short passes per game last season, according to whoscored.com. That number has jumped to 98.2 inaccurate short passes per game this season.

In other words, a team that is usually so precise in its system just hasn’t been sharp.

“That’s been the message going back to the Seattle game,” Kljestan told FourFourTwo this week. “Depending on who we are playing, the game plan changes, but especially against teams like Seattle, they like to possess the ball, so defensively they aren’t really so tough in closing down space. There is often space to play against a team like Seattle if you have patience and take time on the ball and get it to the next guy for the next play. In that [Seattle] game, the Salt Lake game and the Houston game, we haven’t been good at that. Frankly, I think we’ve been bad at it. We’re rushing things, not passing to the next guy to move things, we’re not setting up teammates. Watching video this week, we’re shoving balls into guys and not consciously thinking about the type of pass we’re delivering.”

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It is impossible to discuss the Red Bulls on-field drop-off without noting the absence of Dax McCarty in the middle of the park. McCarty was an organizing presence in the midfield. His passing was also vital for Kljestan, who could pick out pockets between the lines where McCarty would find him. A shocking preseason trade sent McCarty to the Chicago Fire, breaking up the tandem.

Losing McCarty isn’t the sole reason New York looks out of sorts, but the leadership gap and his calm presence on the ball haven’t been fully replaced. On the field, Kljestan insists time and patience will be needed to allow two younger players, most notably 18-year-old Tyler Adams, to grow into McCarty’s role.

For a team like New York, which has been top of the league the past several years, patience is a tough concept to swallow. But Kljestan said he has gone through a similar process before at Anderlecht, where Youri Tielemans and Dennis Praet were brought into the first team as teenagers. Tielemans, 19, could fetch a $20 million transfer fee after this season, while Praet, 22, is a regular starter in the Serie A with Sampdoria.

“You have to have the patience with these guys,” Kljestan said. “Because look, Tyler is 18 years old and got great experience last year, a lot of games in the USL and won a title. You could tell by the end of last season he was a pretty strong force in midfield with the USL team. And now we hope the same things happen [in the first team] because he’s got a great mentality … It’s about getting games and confidence, and you try to encourage these kids without putting them down. You just need them to grow in confidence and trust their instincts, because that’s what got them there in the first place, and that’s what can make them stronger.”

The Red Bulls now must ask what comes next.

Staying the course and allowing time to develop is important, as Kljestan said. It’s a long season, after all. But the Red Bulls clearly need to start to find themselves soon, or at least see some indicators that the team is getting a better hold of how it wants to play and who it can count on.

Two wins to start the season provided a bit of breathing room to absorb some early growing pains, but the expectations after two first-place finishes the past two seasons are high. An offseason shakeup that saw the departure of the team captain, McCarty, and general manager Ali Curtis piles more pressure onto the team.

For now, there is faith within the club that it is headed in the right direction, even if it’s not as fast as they had hoped.

“It’s close to turning the corner,” Marsch told reporters on Tuesday. “It’s close to all coming together.”

It might just require some changes to do so.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.