HARRISON, N.J. — Through two coaches, four captains and a slew of other roster turnover, there’s been one constant in this latest iteration of the New York Red Bulls.
The system is the star.
It’s been said by Jesse Marsch when his midfield consisted of Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty and Felipe and it’s been echoed by Chris Armas when he moved from assistant to head coach when Marsch left for Europe and the club won a third Supporters’ Shield title in six years in 2018.
Big names are gone again this offseason, including captain Luis Robles and two-time Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips as well as Best XI and MLS All-Star fullbacks in Kemar Lawrence and Michael Amir Murillo.
Replacements have come largely within a team that is significantly younger and more inexperienced this season.
But the mantra, which still rings true ahead of the 2020 season, remains the same. And it’s as important as ever.
“We trust our system so much that we feel we can plug guys into our system and once they learn the system and the nuances of it, we can maximize their athleticism, their positional awareness, all their strengths,” goalkeeper Ryan Meara said. “We’re confident. We know there’s noise on the outside, but we’re happy with what we have in the locker room right now.”
The Red Bulls haven’t splashed the cash like a lot of other teams this offseason. There is no club-record signing from Liga MX coming to Harrison. They are doubling down on the system being the star. For it to work, there needs to be a togetherness, a unity on and off the field.
And in that respect, according to Armas, the Red Bulls are stronger than ever.
“To play our style, it does take everyone at all times to be connected,” he said. “So the togetherness, the commitment to our style of play, the energy for this fresh start, I’m really encouraged for 2020.”
After a disappointing end to the 2019 season, which saw a Round One exit to the rival Philadelphia Union, Armas did some soul searching. He read books about Bill Belichick and other coaches, he spent time in Leipzig picking Julian Nagelsmann’s brain.
Armas returned with clarity on how he wanted to start preseason.
“To come back, I’m not throwing the tactics at everyone straightaway,” he said. “What we've gotten back to, really back to is togetherness. That's what real teams look like. Then you can get on the same page tactically, then you can really push the information.”
Other than Meara, perhaps no one on the Red Bulls roster has heard ‘How do you replace fill in the blank key player,’ than Sean Davis.
He heard it when Kljestan was traded to Orlando City SC and then when McCarty left for Chicago Fire FC. He knows the narrative this season is how can the team replace Robles, now the captain at Inter Miami CF, Wright-Phillips, who signed with LAFC or the Anderlecht transfer tandem of Lawrence and Murillo.
“I think when you look back at this last era of Red Bull, it’s never been about just one guy,” the newly-minted Red Bulls captain said. “There’s obviously been really strong characters and personalities that have helped move this thing forward. But ultimately it comes down to all 11 players on the team fighting for each other, showing up every week, trusting the system. And that's what ultimately led us to have success. So we have to continue to commit to that philosophy.”
And while there are plenty of doubters outside the Red Bulls locker room, there is a belief and clear understanding on the ultimate goal and the road to get there.
“We have a goal, it's clear — MLS Cup,” Armas said. “That’s our goal and the way we’re going to get there is just focusing on the process, every day, because that's what we do. It's all about the work and the guys understand, more than ever, that giving to the team is the way. How we break that down is we talk about getting one percent better every day.”