They ran, they pressed, they were miserable to play against and then they lost in the playoffs.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

For more than half the season it looked like Gerhard Struber was not the man for the job, and it looked like the Red Bulls would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009. But they ended the year with an almighty push over the line, and then took the Union to the 123rd minute before bowing out.

Another solid year of work, even if it led them back to the exact same place they’ve always been.

Formation and tactics

Struber’s mandate was pretty straightforward: get this team to Red Bull harder than they’d ever Red Bulled before. Gone were any of the ideas that Chris Armas had tried to implement (some possession scattered in amongst the all-out press; a Plan B of sorts) and that Bradley Carnell had done a pretty good job implementing. It was back to lots of long balls, lots of transitions and all 50/50s all the time. Just pure verticality when one of those 50/50s fell to the right foot.

The formation part of the equation took longer to solve, as Struber pretty clearly wanted to go with a 4-4-2 diamond. The results eventually got so bad, though, that he gave up the ghost on any of the two-striker formations and spent the final 15 games (or so) of the year with his team playing out of either a 4-2-3-1 or, more often, a 3-4-2-1.

Going with one striker and more natural width along the front line seemed to make the press more difficult to break, and more bodies in central midfield meant that come mid-September, they were winning a lot more of those 50/50s and playing effective, if not aesthetically pleasing, soccer.

Highlights

RBNY went down to Fort Lauderdale and crushed Inter Miami 4-0 on Sept. 17, kicking off a 7-1-2 stretch over 10 games that propelled Struber’s side from 11th in the standings up to, at one point, fourth. It was a display of fortitude and a level of buy-in that had been missing for basically the entire summer when the Red Bulls seemed to sleepwalk through game after game.

Weirdly, the high point of this 10-game stretch wasn’t one of the seven wins, but one of the two draws. Just five days after that win in Fort Lauderdale the Red Bulls hosted NYCFC in Harrison and, despite being largely outplayed for 90 minutes, still walked away with a point thanks to Patryk Klimala’s stoppage-time penalty.

This had everything RBNY loves: A long-ball from the backline to the top of the box; a 50/50 off a knockdown; an immediate touch forward; an exhausted, scrambling defense destined to make a mistake.

This is the Red Bull version of jogo bonito. This is what it looks like when this team plays with life, and purpose.

And then Klimala finished it off by scoring the latest goal in MLS regular-season history. Even more than the win over Miami or any of the subsequent triumphs, this was the turning point.

Lowlight

Two months later, Jakob Glesnes bent home the latest goal in MLS postseason history. And that was the end point.

The Red Bulls had fought hard against the Union and had earned themselves a few chances to, perhaps, win it. But Kyle Duncan, the team’s best player on the day, hit the post. Klimala, the DP forward who was the second-most expensive signing in team history, got loose but fired wide, or was stoned by Andre Blake.

And then, after a two-month-long push to get into the playoffs and 122 minutes of grim determination (and a bit of luck thanks to the punchless Philly forwards), Glesnes rang from 30 yards and the bell tolled for the Red Bulls.

Revelation

There are actually a couple of good candidates here, as Dru Yearwood really settled in once he got to play in a double pivot next to Sean Davis, and Carlos Coronel was right up there with the likes of Blake and Matt Turner among the league’s best ‘keepers starting in mid-summer and continuing right into the playoffs.

But the truth is RBNY’s season would’ve ended with Aaron Long’s springtime Achilles’ injury if not for Sean Nealis stepping forward and becoming a backline rock. The third-year center back is the latest in a long line of unheralded Long Islanders to step into major roles with the Red Bulls, and it’s not an exaggeration to say he was one of the 10 best center backs in MLS this year. He even scored one of the most important goals of the season – an 87th-minute winner at Columbus in late October – for good measure.

Not bad for a kid with fewer than 1000 MLS minutes entering the season.

Disappointment

None of the attacking signings really hit, and none of the holdovers really leveled up. Klimala’s link play was often excellent, but he scored just five non-penalty goals, and never really fit with Fabio, who scored just seven non-penalty goals and whose purchase option was not exercised at year’s end.

Wiki Carmona scored just once. Caden Clark seemed to regress after his early-season appendectomy, while Frankie Amaya fell out of the attacking rotation quick, and then stayed out of it. Cristian Casseres Jr. got hot near the end of the year, but faded in the playoffs.

The numbers show up in the boxscore: the Red Bulls scored more than a single goal just twice in their final 20 games across all competitions.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Klimala (FW): The underlying numbers are good as are the physical tools, and it’s not crazy to expect something of a breakout from him in Year 2.
  • Nealis (CB): A 24-year-old domestic CB who’s already shown he can be an asset on both sides of the ball. This one’s easy.
  • Coronel (GK): His shot-stopping was excellent by July, and he’s one of the best sweeper-keepers in the league both with his reads (he’s superb coming off the line) and his footwork on the ball.
  • Casseres (CM): When Casseres got hot in early autumn he was really, REALLY good. He’s been around so long it’s easy to forget he’s just 21 years old, and maybe next year will be the one when he pairs consistency with that tantalizing upside.
  • Yearwood (CM): Another 21-year-old who flashed considerable upside, and another from whom it’s reasonable to expect significant improvement with regard to consistency.

Offseason Priority:

After signing Coronel long-term, there are other “let’s tidy our own home first” issues they need to take care of. Can Long be close to the same guy he was upon coming back from the most devastating injury an athlete can face? Can they bring Davis back on a fair deal and keep him as a Red Bull lifer? Can they work out another loan for Tom Edwards?

Solving all that is important, while from a positional standpoint, they have a glaring need at right back/right wingback even if Edwards returns. Duncan was a massive part of not just their attack, but actually getting the ball into the attack in the first place. He's now in Belgium.

Looming, though, is this: There’s a lot of evidence that this is about as far as a team can go in MLS playing this specific style. Jesse Marsch’s teams had more talent than this group and never made it to MLS Cup. The Union arguably have less, and are Red Bull-esque in certain ways, but they’re also a pretty good example of why Armas wanted to institute a Plan B – the Union can and do break teams down with the ball.

Struber is an Energy Drink Soccer maximalist so I don’t think he’s going to change his ethos. They will play against the ball next year, not with it. Maybe, though, they should switch it up every now and then.