Orlando City’s 2018 season will finally draw to a close on Sunday as the Lions travel to square off with the New York Red Bulls in Red Bull Arena on Decision Day. New York still has the Supporters’ Shield in its sights while Orlando is coming off its first victory since July. City played spoiler a bit with that win, throwing the playoff hopes of the Columbus Crew into doubt and the team has an opportunity to do something similar to the Red Bulls. In a smaller storyline, Sacha Kljestan makes his return to the Red Bulls after Orlando acquired him in early January.
Chris Armas has had half of the season at the helm now and the Red Bulls have shown no signs of slowing down. Is that because of the system in place or is it a testament to Armas’ ability as a manager?
Austin Fido: A bit of both, I’d suggest. It is now four seasons since RBNY dedicated itself to RalfBall. Since 2015, the entire club has been focused on working to the principles (and within the parameters) of the philosophy of Red Bull Global Soccer’s master plan. Pretty much every decision the club makes is informed by the system to which it has committed, on and off the field: tactics, players, coaches, the way the academy and reserve teams develop and advance candidates for first team contracts, and the way RBNY shops the transfer market. Even the decision to hire Armas as Marsch’s successor is consistent with RalfBall’s ideals of continuity and developing its own talent. The system isn’t foolproof and is to blame when things go wrong, but it should be credited when things go right, since making things go right is surely the point of the system. Well done, RalfBall: RBNY is in good shape.
But credit Armas too. He stepped into a situation that might have quickly gone bad for him. Injuries to the likes of Florian Valot and Vincent Bezecourt trimmed the depth of the squad; some key players on expiring contracts (Kemar Lawrence — since signed to a new deal — and Tim Parker, whose future at RBNY is still not certain) might have started to impact the squad’s unity and focus. And of course any dip in form — real or imagined — was always more likely to be blamed on Armas not being up to the job rather than other factors. In some ways, making a team successful under a designated system is harder than having more control. Marsch’s tenure established that a Ralfball team can be successful — competitive, certainly — in MLS. Any slip-ups in Marsch’s absence would be attributed to Armas, not the system.
Sunday is a must-win match for the Red Bulls to have their best chance of winning the Supporters’ Shield. Does that change how Armas will approach the match?
AF: I don’t think it will change things for Armas because I think this is the situation he’d been hoping and planning for for at least a couple of weeks now. After RBNY beat Atlanta at the end of the September, the task was to try winning two games on the road and hope to land back at Red Bull Arena for the regular season finale with something meaningful to play for. That has been achieved.
Atlanta remains the favorite to win the Shield — because beating TFC, even in Toronto, isn’t nearly as difficult this season as it was last year. I’m not expecting RBNY to claim the regular season title this season because I’m not expecting Atlanta to drop points this weekend. I would guess Armas thinks much the same, but neither he nor the players want to be the team that surrendered the Shield race without a fight; nor do they want to limp into the playoffs on the back of a loss at home. So they will treat this as a must-win game, even if the win won’t necessarily deliver any silverware — at the very least, it’s the last chance to tune up for must-win games that lie ahead in the postseason.
Sacha Kljestan will return to Red Bull Arena for the first time since the trade between the two clubs over the winter. What will the reception be like for the team’s former captain? What’s New York’s assessment of the trade after a season without Kljestan?
AF: I expect Sacha’s reception to be mixed. He was a major contributor to RBNY’s success during his time at the club, and he set or tied at least one of our major assists record (single-season league assists, all-competitions career assists, etc.) in each of his seasons with the team. He was a big part of the last RBNY squad to lift a trophy — the 2015 Supporters’ Shield. For his commitment (he didn’t ask to leave the team) and performance, he deserves to be remembered fondly and with respect — and some, perhaps several, fans will do just that.
Others will recall that his last act as a Red Bull — as captain, no less — was to get sent off for squalling with Jozy Altidore at half-time of a must-win game (which RBNY did win, but not by enough to advance in the playoffs) against TFC. And many will remember Sacha’s apparent questioning of RBNY’s ambition: muttering about the team’s need for “difference-makers” as he looked back on his time in New York from his new surroundings in Orlando.
As for evaluating the trade that sent Sacha to Florida, clearly it was a success for RBNY. It’s an odd success in that the trade was never really about what Orlando was offering, more what the Red Bulls thought could be done to bolster the squad by filling the space vacated by Kljestan. Neither Carlos Rivas nor Tommy Redding have made any great contribution to this season for RBNY. It looked like a trade that favored Orlando at the time it was made, and it still looks that way now, if you judge the trade purely by what each team took away from it. But judge the trade by what each team has achieved since, however, and it shouldn’t be controversial to say RBNY got the better of it.
What injuries/suspensions will keep players out this weekend and what is your projected lineup and predicted final score?
AF: Daniel Royer and Kemar Lawrence did not feature against Philadelphia last week, but word is they have recovered from their respective knocks. If they’ve made it through the back-end of the week , I’d expect them both to play against Orlando. Marc Rzatkowski might be a concern, but that might simply serve to save Armas a headache over whether or not to start Alex Muyl. No great suspension worries either, so I’d expect a full-strength lineup as RBNY looks to close out the regular season on a high, and maybe with a trophy — if TFC does something unexpected.
Injured: Vincent Bezecourt, Kyle Duncan, Ben Mines, Tommy Redding, Florian Valot.
Predicted lineup: Luis Robles; Kemar Lawrence, Aaron Long, Tim Parker, Michael Murillo; Sean Davis, Tyler Adams; Daniel Royer, Kaku, Alex Muyl; Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Predicted Score: RBNY 2-1 Orlando.
I think OCSC will be up for this and give us a scare, but the Red Bulls want to win this game — regardless of what happens in Toronto — and should not lack for motivation to chase down three points at home.
Thanks again to Austin for giving us the update on New York.