Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

What the 2023 MLS season meant for New York Red Bulls


They really danced with the devil this year, didn’t they? For a huge chunk of 2023 – basically right up until stoppage time on Decision Day – it seemed like this group was going to be the one to break a 13-year Audi MLS Cup Playoffs streak.

Say what you want about RBNY’s postseason struggles (I’ll be saying a bunch in a moment), but 13 straight years in the playoffs? That’s impressive as hell in a salary-capped league! The fact they’ve managed it while developing and selling so many of their best young players ups the degree of difficulty, and speaks well to… well, I’m loath to praise the Energy Drink Soccer game model, but it clearly works.

In the regular season.

Anyway, these guys bought in all year long, and all year long they were snakebit in front of goal (which is why it looked like that streak was going up in smoke). By my count they turned about 90% of the games they played into RED BULL games – just pure freaking murderball – and when they impose that on you, they’re going to get their chances.

Nobody could put the ball in the net, though. That includes new record signing Dante Vanzeir, who was supposed to be the pure goalscorer to turn the Red Bulls' positional and stylistic dominance into goals. He never did, and his season was interrupted by injury, and then by a suspension for directing a racial slur towards the ref during a match against the San Jose Earthquakes, and then by injury again. The way then-head coach Gerhard Struber handled the racial slur incident seemed to grease the skids for his departure, with Troy Lesesne taking over on a full-time basis in May.

It all seemed headed to no good end until the calendar flipped to autumn and the Red Bulls inexplicably got hot. They won four of their last five, including a dramatic 1-0 stoppage-time win at Nashville on Decision Day, and so back into the playoffs they went.

As usual, their stay didn’t last long.

Formation & Tactics

Again: pure murderball. Red Bull, as usual, pressed higher and harder than anybody in the league, and they (surprise) won the ball higher than anybody in the league, yadda yadda yadda.

They do not care about completing passes – they trade possession for field position. The other big trade they make is chance quantity (nobody allows fewer) for chance quality (RBNY allowed the highest xG per shot in the league by a mile).

Lesesne deserves credit for being the first coach in RBNY history to make the 4-2-2-2 work. That’s the default formation of Energy Drink Soccer – the preferred formation over in Salzburg and Leipzig – and everyone from Struber to Jesse Marsch had tried and discarded it in New York.

But now it seems here to stay.


After a year of mostly not shooting straight, RBNY, as I mentioned, got hot in late September. That led to one of the most dramatic moments in Decision Day history, as they went down to Nashville needing a win to get into the postseason.

Nashville don't give up much, especially at home. And, as expected, two of the best defensive teams in the league coming together looked headed for a scoreless draw.

Two minutes into an allotted four of second-half stoppage time, Luquinhas got on the ball in Zone 14 and turned Aníbal Godoy. He dribbled into the box and Godoy hacked him down.

Penalty. But with a 13-year playoff streak on the line, who’d take it?

Up to the spot walked homegrown hero John Tolkin, a 21-year-old kid who’d grown up in the Red Bulls academy and grown into the kind of star who’s got a cult following in other team’s fanbases. There aren’t many left backs out there who break into the zeitgeist like that.

Stepping up right here took stones:

Four days later, the Red Bulls beat the brakes off of Charlotte in the Wild Card.

Everything’s coming up Metro!


They followed up that destruction of Charlotte by getting cooked 3-0 at Cincy on the road. Then they came home for leg two of their Round One Best-of-3 series and took a 1-0 lead through Tom Barlow… at which point, everything started coming up so, so Metro:

  • With 15 minutes left they conceded a self-inflicted equalizer after Andrés Reyes took a quick free kick at midfield that he pinged off of Brandon Vazquez, which 10 seconds later led to an Aaron Boupendza goal on the break.
  • RBNY then held on for dear life, but it looked like they’d lost 2-1 in stoppage time on Luciano Acosta’s Olimpico. However, a foul was called on the play (I think it was the correct call, as Carlos Coronel was impeded), which made for a huge let-off and gave RBNY momentum heading into the PK shootout.
  • They took the lead in that PK shootout.
  • Tolkin was the fifth shooter and stepped up to the spot with a chance to win it.
  • Yup, he pinged it off the post and out.
  • They took another lead in the shootout.
  • This time it was 18-year-old homegrown Serge Ngoma who stepped up with a chance to win it.
  • He gave my old ESC gang in 101 a souvenir.
  • After Junior Moreno made his penalty, Reyes stepped up.
  • His PK was a tame effort that Cincy ‘keeper Roman Celentano parried away with ease.

And just like that another abbreviated trip to the postseason was in the books.


I’m not sure anyone qualifies, though Frankie Amaya maybe comes closest. He was just super impactful as a two-way central midfielder and has real soccer in his boots.


They spent a club-record $5+ million on Vanzeir who put up just two regular-season goals, and just five across all competitions. He managed to play just shy of 1,200 minutes.


2024 Preview

Five Players to Build Around

  • Tolkin (LB): Assuming they don’t sell him, he’s a Best XI-caliber talent at LB.
  • Reyes (CB): The end to the season – he had a hand in all four Cincy goals in the playoffs, and missed the PK – shouldn’t cloud what was otherwise a very good year.
  • Sean Nealis (CB): He’s a local kid, he’s in his prime, he rarely misses games, and he completely buys into the system.
  • Amaya (CM/DM): A legit high-end central midfield talent who I expect to take a massive step next season.
  • Daniel Edelman (DM): An academy kid whose fearless approach, combined with juuuust enough skill, has made him undroppable.

Offseason Priority

Notice how there are no attackers in that above list? Yeah.

Any time someone’s shoved a tape recorder in front of a Red Bull exec the past three months they’ve talked about how they aim to spend, and spend BIG this offseason. New attackers in droves!

That sounds great, but, um, here’s their list of record signings:

Red Bulls - Doyle year-end - transfers

At some point, I would like for them to seriously interrogate the game model. It works in the regular season, sure. It also works in Salzburg where Red Bull Global can furnish that team with (at least) twice the budget of any of their competitors.

But in Leipzig, where they can’t just outspend their rivals, they hit a point of diminishing returns and have actually dialed the press back in recent years. And in MLS, in the playoffs… well, if you trade chance quantity for chance quality against a team like Cincy, or the Union, or the Crew, you’re eventually going to lose.

The fans know this. They’ve seen it happen for 14 straight years now.