Baer: Star players among players to blame for inconsistent Red Bulls attack

Jesse Marsch - Head in hands in NY's 3-1 loss to LA - May 14, 2017

The New York Red Bulls made a big move in the offseason, trading away their captain Dax McCarty in one of the most shocking decisions made in MLS in recent memory.

So far, that decision has seen mixed results. It has given playing time to what appears to be a future superstar in the form of Tyler Adams, but the Red Bulls have struggled to take command of games the way they did in the past. This is shown by their 6-7-2 start to the season and a -6 goal differential, as they have scored just 15 goals so far, with only two teams scoring fewer.

When asked to assess his season so far, Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch described it as “average.”

“You know I think we haven't gotten ourselves going enough. We haven't played well enough in enough games and enough stretches of games,” Marsch told on Monday, before New York’s 1-0 win over New York City FC in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup.

Marsch pointed to their struggles on set pieces and their lack of command in games as two reasons for their so-so start.

“We knew that this wasn't just going to be a year that was going to be turnkey from the start.”

While their 6-7-2 start puts them right around where they were through 15 games in Marsch’s first two years, the goalscoring looks to be the team's biggest issue. They scored 26 goals through their first 15 games last year, and were at a respectable 19 in 2015.

Some of their underlying numbers, provided by Opta, show why this may be occurring.

Big Chances/Game
Touches in Opp Box/Game
Passing Accuracy in Final Third

If you’re wondering where their expected goals totals are at, their xG per game has dropped off from 1.45 during the 2016 season to 1.31 so far this year. This means they are not creating as good of chances as they did a year ago.

The two players you think of when talking about the Red Bulls attack are Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan.

Wright-Phillips won the Golden Boot last year, scoring 24 goals, but has just six in 1,244 minutes this year. The expected goals numbers show exactly what’s going on with the English striker.

After a slow start in 2016, Wright-Phillips ended the year with 24 goals. This came off of chances that amounted to an expected goals value of 16.87, meaning on average, based on the quality of chances, he would be expected to score around 17 goals. The 24 he did score means he had an incredible year finishing chances and may have overperformed.

This year his expected goals value amounts to 6.94, meaning he has slightly underperformed based on the quality of his chances. He is simply not an otherworldly finisher this year.

For his part, Marsch is unconcerned about the play of his star striker.

“I think Brad will be the first to tell you that he hasn't take advantage of situations that have goalscoring opportunities as well as he maybe has in the past two years,” Marsch said when asked about the struggles of his striker. “All that being said my faith and belief in Brad is at the highest level. I mean maybe higher than any player I've ever played [with] or coached. And so I know what he's like and I know that it's a matter of time before he really gets this going.”

While Kljestan still leads the league in chances created per 90 minutes, the number of chances he’s creating from open play has taken a significant hit after an incredible 2016.

Chances Created per 90 (MLS Rank)
Chances Created from Open Play per 90 (MLS Rank)
% Passes in Opp Half
3.64 (1)
2.26 (1)
3.24 (1)
1.58 (25)

You can see he’s dropping a little farther back in the field to pick up the field in the numbers above, perhaps preventing him from getting in dangerous areas. For his part, Marsch is completely unconcerned with his captain’s lack of production (0 G, 6 A) and called it “ridiculous” that he was not included on Bruce Arena’s 40-man Gold Cup roster.

Having said all that, it’s clear that players like Daniel Royer, Mike Grella, Alex Muyl and Gonzalo Veron will need to improve their production to help out their star players. They have combined for just six goals and one assist so far. The play of Grella, Muyl and Lloyd Sam were key in taking pressure off of Wright-Phillips and Kljestan in previous seasons.

As Marsch noted, their struggles on set pieces can also be pointed to as a reason for their struggles. Their 40 set-piece goals in 2015 and 2016 were the most for any team according to Opta, but they have just four this season. That total is tied for 15th in MLS.

Marsch has stated that the Red Bulls are out looking for reinforcements, but it’s also obvious that there are some improvements that will need to be made within the club if they hope to again join the group of MLS Cup contenders.