More kids and more Energy Drink Soccer!
A GIF is worth a thousand words:
The Red Bulls did Red Bull things: They ran, they pressed, they fought, they won lots of 50/50s and some 40/60s, and occasionally they passed the ball. They also scored a few goals and gave up even fewer, which is how you tie the league record by making a 13th consecutive trip to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
There is an ideology – a way of viewing the game in Harrison and, I guess, in Salzburg – that makes this team a model of consistency even when there’s massive turnover, and especially when there’s not. And, by the way, in the parts of the pitch where there actually was some turnover this past winter, head coach Gerhard Struber recommitted the whole organization to bringing more kids through the academy pipeline and getting them onto the field in high-leverage spots.
It didn’t lead to any trophies or any particularly monumental wins, but collecting 50ish regular-season points year after year after year is a hell of a thing. Even if losing early in the playoffs year after year after year has clearly worn down the fanbase.
Formation and Tactics
Struber was determined to take what worked last year and do it even harder. All the traditional Red Bull tactics you know of – trading possession for field position, caring almost not at all about stringing together passing sequences, hitting tons of long balls and getting into tons of aerial duels – were there, except this time they were there to the exclusion of anything else.
We’ve seen RBNY teams of the past try to use the ball and play a little bit. It hasn’t been Plan A since 2014, and I’m not saying it should be now. But they could do it from time to time just to toss the occasional curveball.
Not this group. With this group, it was all demolition derby all the time as they pushed that Red Bull ethos to 11.
Sometimes that came out of a 3-4-2-1, and other times out of a 4-2-3-1. I’m not sure they were more effective in one than the other, but obviously the lack of productivity from the forwards made it difficult to even consider the long-held ideal formation of the 4-2-2-2, or of the 4-4-2 diamond.
Like I said, there wasn’t any one particular win that made you think “wow, it’s all coming together! They’ve got this!” They were mostly just consistent about beating teams they should beat, about not giving up cheap goals, and about keeping their energy level high during those random midweek games when we see so many teams fail. Plus Struber did a much better job this year of using his depth to prevent the kind of burnout that has hurt the Red Bulls in years past.
And because of that, the best stretch of the season came in late summer, as RBNY went 4W-1L-1D from August 17 to September 10, including a trio of massive six-pointers against Atlanta, Miami and New England. The reason RBNY keep making the playoffs year after year is because they find a way to come out of games like those with three points year after year.
Speaking of the USOC…
I’ll let you choose your own adventure here:
• In the USOC semifinals, RBNY took a 1-0 lead at Orlando a minute into first-half stoppage time (another Morgan goal). By the time halftime came, it was already 1-1. By the time the final whistle blew, it was 5-1 to the hosts in a legendary rout.
• In the first round of the playoffs, RBNY took a 1-0 lead over Cincy just after the break (Morgan, of course). But they had no counters for the Garys’ mid-second half adjustments, so that 1-0 lead turned into a 2-1 loss to make it 27 years of Cupless misery.
This is what makes the Red Bulls some sort of Greek tragedy, because in spite of their Sisyphean (or I guess Tantalus would be a better comp) approach to cup runs, they have a long-standing habit of bringing out the best in multiple players.
Morgan made a huge leap to all-league caliber with 18g/4a across all competitions. John Tolkin got real buzz for a national team look (it should’ve come in June) and a big-money European move (it might come in January). Daniel Edelman went from “that skinny kid’s on a first-team contract?” to “that skinny kid’s starting and doing really well, for both RBNY and the US U-20s.”
So every year, you can look back at the guys who took a step forward the year before and find reasons to be positively overflowing with hope.
Yeah, it’s Tantalus. Definitely Tantalus.
That’s the DP No. 10 and the DP No. 9.
I think both are pretty good players, though I wouldn’t bet either ever actually prove to be DP-caliber. What is certain is neither was a good fit for Struber’s system, and it’s hard to be an elite team if the top of your roster is so unproductive.
That doesn’t account for the entire difference between this version of RBNY and the 2015-18 version of RBNY, but it’s most of it.
Five Players to Build Around
- Morgan (W): At $1.2 million in GAM he was an absolute steal, even if a bunch of his goals came from the spot.
- Carlos Coronel (GK): Wasn’t quite as good this year, but is still one of the better ‘keepers in the league, and is really excellent at sweeping in behind that high back line.
- Sean Nealis (CB): Last year’s big success story didn’t really take a big step forward this season, but was still very good.
- Edelman (DM): There’s a lot of Sean Davis to his game, which is a compliment.
- Frankie Amaya (CM): When healthy and trusted by Struber, he’s a two-way force in central midfield. I still think Amaya has elite upside as a No. 6.
Aaron Long’s out of contract. Kyle Duncan’s most likely going back to Belgium. Folks in the know expect the market for Tolkin and Cristian Casseres Jr. to be hot this winter, which is why they’re not on the above list.
But I don’t think any of it is as important as figuring out whether this really is as far as Energy Drink Soccer can push a team in MLS, and if so, what larger, macro changes that might necessitate. Because whether those changes come or not, we’ve got a pretty good sample size now that says when games get tighter and teams get more risk-averse in the postseason, the efficacy of Energy Drink Soccer drops significantly.