UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – At times this past season, the New York Red Bulls played some of the most attractive soccer in MLS. They switched the field, threaded delicate passes and played soccer that was pleasing on the eye.
That attractive style, however, got them the 10th and final playoff spot and an exit from the playoffs much sooner than anyone had predicted during preseason.
Head coach Hans Backe has had time to reflect on the season and labeled the decision to insert Stephen Keel alongside Tim Ream at center back as a good one, which bodes well for the future.
“We need to balance,” Backe said. “If you play Ream, who is more of a ‘soft’ center back, more of you can almost say attacking center back with his passing game, you need one guy – a cleaner – alongside Ream.”
Now, as New York set about evaluating their offseason needs, a common talking point is emerging; the Red Bulls need to get physical. Keel added the steel that was arguably lacking when Rafa Márquez partnered the young US defender in the first half of the season.
The Mexican international’s strengths are similar to Ream’s in terms of possession as well as the fact that he equally enjoys striding forward with the ball at every opportunity. During the stretch of the regular season when Keel was brought in as a starting defender, Márquez was moved to the midfield. The switch worked because Márquez was more suited to the hustle and bustle of the center of the park, rather than dealing with towering MLS target men one-on-one.
“We could play out of the back four very well the first seven games, playing [Márquez] as a center back,” Backe said. “But in this league, with the kind of physical strikers they have, a straight direct game, I feel he probably fits in better in central midfield. That’s why we said, ‘OK, let’s get Keel in.' We know what we will get. We will get a guy who wins headers, that can tackle, that digs in. The balance went better for us.”
Backe said that the Red Bulls will be eyeing a central defender to bring into the team this offseason. The Red Bulls envision Márquez as a holding midfielder at the bottom of a diamond midfield where he will be freed from overtly physical play.
“Rafa is not only a defender; at his best, he’s an excellent passer of the ball,” sporting director Erik Solér said. “He is a guy that can start the attack, do the surprise parts, play directly out of the back. We look upon him as just as much an asset to our offensive part of the game.”
But in terms of using a Designated Player slot on a big name defender, Solér drew the line.
“We wouldn’t spend [DP] money on someone to purely defend,” Solér said.
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer