After taking a week off to get healthier, Orlando City takes the pitch again this weekend to square off against the New York Red Bulls. There are plenty of storylines going into Saturday’s mid-day match, including Sacha Kljestan meeting up with his former team and Carlos Rivas’ return to Orlando. The Lions are still looking for their first win of the 2018 season while New York is juggling the league and the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Dom Dwyer should make his long-awaited return to the field this weekend and perhaps we’ll see what Josué Colmán can really do.
And while the Red Bulls continue to play the same brand of soccer, there are a few new key players wearing red and white to get to know. So we touched base with Austin Fido, managing editor of SB Nation’s own Once a Metro to get the scoop on New York’s red team. I also answered his questions and you can find those over at his place.
The Red Bulls’ offense has been clicking even after the departure of Sacha Kljestan. What has been the key to New York’s early success in 2018?
Austin Fido: I think the simple answer — and the one the team might itself endorse — is that RBNY has had a consistent tactical philosophy since 2015 and has single-mindedly focused on recruiting players that fit the desired system and style of play for the last three seasons. So the core of the team knows exactly what it is supposed to do, and the new arrivals and emerging talents know exactly what they need to do to rise up the depth chart. That, plus the fact a few players have started the year in excellent form — BWP and Luis Robles most notably, perhaps — adds up to a team that knows itself very well and has been able to get out to a quick start in 2018.
There’s a little more to it than that, of course. In part, the team has been perhaps fortunate to be matched up against opponents in MLS and CONCACAF Champions League who aren’t playing nearly as fluidly, for one reason or another. In part, RBNY should get credit for a well-planned preseason: it wasn’t really reflected in the results of the squad’s February friendlies, but clearly the plan — which was to have a squad capable of competing in both CCL and MLS from the get-go — has worked. This is particularly praise-worthy because the club scheduled a very similar preseason for itself last year, and didn’t kick off the season nearly as well. The front office and technical staff clearly absorbed a number of lessons from that experience, and the team seems to be much the better for it.
It’s also very helpful that several of the new arrivals — Tim Parker, Kyle Duncan and yes, even the oft-maligned Carlos Rivas — have settled in quickly and with near-immediate positive impact on the field. Again, credit the technical staff for their own development of their craft. The team signs new players every year, but they don’t always work out as well, as quickly as the 2018 intake appears to have done.
The next challenge is to sustain the run of results as our opponents in MLS and CCL get progressively better. In the league, we’ll soon start running into teams that have shaken off the early-season rust, or never had any in the first place. And in CCL, the challenge gets progressively more difficult, as tends to be the case in knockout competitions. But the first hurdle — the first month of the season — has been cleared with style and confidence.
Bradley Wright-Phillips has started this season hot, scoring three goals in three games even without Sacha. What has been the secret to his success even at this late stage in his career?
AF: For me, there’s no secret: he’s an extremely intelligent player, and that’s been the basis of his success in MLS since he arrived at RBNY. He’ll age out of the game at some point, but he hasn’t been a player relying on exceptional physical gifts at any stage of his career with the Red Bulls; rather, he relies on exceptional movement and reading of the game around him.
Further evidence of his intelligence: he’s adapted to a significant tactical shift at the club. He’s won two Golden Boots playing for two very different teams — almost two oppositional teams. The side Mike Petke coached was built around Thierry Henry and controlling possession. Jesse Marsch coaches to the principles of RalfBall, which is more about controlling space. Through the turbulent transition between those distinct eras of RBNY soccer, BWP has remained the team’s top-scorer — and an elite scorer by MLS standards (indeed, by most leagues’ standards).
He’s been able to do that, I would argue, because he’s one of the smartest players at RBNY, and in MLS. His body will eventually let him down, but as long as he can keep up with the physical demands of a pro soccer career, I think he’ll continue to be an elite player because it’s his mind that makes him special, and that might be the one thing a pro athlete can reasonably expect to improve with age, rather than diminish.
Nonetheless, we’re not used to seeing BWP scoring quite this freely this early in the year. He has tended to need a few games to get into form during his time at RBNY. Jesse Marsch has repeatedly mentioned BWP came into preseason prepared and focused (last year, he was juggling preseason with the arrival of a newborn child), and very obviously wants us to know that if Wright-Phillips appears to be in mid-season form in March, it’s because it’s exactly what he spent the winter working toward.
Will the trip to Guadalajara for the CONCACAF Champions League tie with Chivas a few days after the match affect how Jesse Marsch lines his team up this weekend?
AF: Jesse has been quite consistent so far this season: he plays whatever he thinks is his strongest team in CCL. In MLS, he uses whatever he thinks is the strongest team that won’t weaken the CCL lineup. I expect him to stick to that approach for this game.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Orlando will see a reserve team in RBNY shirts. For a start, the concept of “reserves” gets a little blurred when you have multiple players consistently starting and playing well. Kyle Duncan has started all three of RBNY’s league games so far this season. He’s played well — the team has won two out of three of those games. Is he really a reserve? We’ll find out when Marsch is allowing himself to pick from his full squad, rather than effectively dividing the roster into MLS and CCL lineups. That won’t be this weekend.
For now, Jesse is trying to keep legs fresh for CCL and we’re basically watching two near-separate RBNY squads. My impression is he decides on the team he wants to play in CCL and then works backwards to what that means for MLS games. The formation — RBNY flips pretty comfortably between a three-at-the-back formation supplemented by wing backs, and a more conventional four-man back line — will depend on whichever players are picked for the match, with perhaps some slight concession to the opponent.
Having said that, few things are more consistent about RBNY these days than the capacity of its head coach to surprise fans with his team selections. Very often, when we think we’ve figured out where Jesse’s head is at with respect to the roster, he changes something. So expect a Red Bull “reserve” team, and don’t be shocked if that isn’t the case.
Also note that the second-string squad currently includes senior players like Aurelien Collin and newly-signed DP Kaku (still finding his way into the team’s system), and club captain Luis Robles hasn’t missed a game yet this season.
What injuries/suspensions will keep players out this weekend and what is your predicted lineup and final score?
AF: Fidel Escobar is returning from international duty with an injury. Kaku missed RBNY’s last outing with a previously undisclosed knock, though not one thought to be particularly serious. Amir Murillo, Tyler Adams, and Kemar Lawrence will also be recently returned from national team outings and they are considered likely starters for CCL, so consider it a mild surprise if any of them even appear on the bench.
Predicted lineup: Luis Robles; Connor Lade, Aurelien Collin, Aaron Long, Kyle Duncan; Marc Rzatkowski, Florian Valot; Derrick Etienne, Kaku, Ben Mines; Carlos Rivas.
Score: On the road with more or less a second-string lineup against a team due a win, I think we’ll do well to get a draw. I also think we won’t get a draw — Orlando to win, 2-1
Thanks again to Austin for taking the time to answer our questions and giving us some insight on the Red Bulls.