The Three-Headed Monster: Why the New York Red Bulls midfield is the best in MLS

In the weeks following his hire this winter it was pretty clear what New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch wanted to do: Re-build the midfield.

With the departure of Designated Player Tim Cahill, Marsch knew he had a chance to transform it to his liking.

The former Impact head coach managed to pull it off in one fell swoop. On January 27 the Red Bulls traded Eric Alexander and Ambroise Oyongo to the Impact for Felipe and the No. 1 spot in the allocation order.

Alexander was an integral part of the Red Bulls’ run to the Eastern Conference Championship series in 2014, pairing Dax McCarty in the center of midfield to power the Red Bulls to a playoff place and onto the conference final. Oyongo showed a ton of promise in his 13 games with New York, with the 23-year-old flashing some serious potential at left back. 

But Marsch knew what he was acquiring in Felipe, a former player of his in Montreal. The Brazilian was used in various spots for the Impact over the course of his three years in Quebec, but arguably his best position was as a box-to-box midfielder.

The No. 1 allocation spot granted the Red Bulls the opportunity to acquire US international Sacha Kljestan. Marsch played with Kljestan for four seasons at Chivas USA before the latter's move to Anderlecht, where he was a starter for the perennial UEFA Champions League participants.

It was supposed to come together eventually, but it turns out that timeline was pessimistic. Together McCarty, Felipe, and Kljestan have already established themselves as one of the most formidable midfields, if not the most formidable, in MLS this season.

Marsch has deployed the three players in the middle of his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, with Kljestan nominally playing ahead of the other two. You can see this in their passing network from last Friday night’s game against San Jose, which looks very similar to the rest of their games this season.

Red Bulls Passing Network Graph vs. SJ

He has asked them, along with the rest of the team, to play in an active high press system that tries to force opposing teams to make mistakes.

That system's worked, with the Red Bulls forcing opponents to lose possession at the highest rate in MLS so far this season.

Opponents Possession Lost Per Game

This has been possible in large part because of the work of Marsch’s midfield three, along with the energy and stamina of Bradley Wright-Phillips, Lloyd Sam, and Mike Grella.

Kljestan, for one, has been asked to do it all for the Red Bulls. Playing a little further up the field than his two compatriots, Kljestan has contributed to the attack while also being one of the points of the team’s high press.

His statistics don’t pop out at you, but they do show his all-around game. He is in the top-50 in the league in terms of shots and chances created per 90 while also being 23rd in pass usage rate. Kljestan, Pedro Morales, and Federico Higuain are the only players in the top-50 in shots and chances created per 90 and in the top-25 of usage rate. That’s some pretty good company for the former Chivas USA player.

Felipe, meanwhile, is having a career resurgence under his former head coach. He has seen his numbers spike back up to 2012 levels, when he was ranked No. 5 in MLSsoccer.com’s 24 Under 24. Playing more in a No. 8 role as opposed to a No. 10, the Brazilian has displayed all of his potential in the season’s first five games.

Felipe over the years
Year Tackles Per 90 Interceptions Per 90 Recoveries Per 90 Chances Created from Open Play Per 90
2012 2.07 1.32 5.67 1.53
2013 1.15 1.11 3.68 1.34
2014 1.06 .99 4.95 1.25
2015 1.42 2.23 8.72 1.42

As you can see, he’s back to his 2012 self under Marsch and may now be even better.

The final piece of Marsch’s midfield three has also started strong. One of the top defensive midfielders in MLS over the past few seasons, McCarty looks to have hit a new level in 2015.

The Red Bulls captain has been the starting point of the team's advances forward and it shows in the numbers. The 27-year-old is currently No. 1 in usage rate among players with at least 200 minutes played. This comes after he finished seventh in the same statistic last season.

2015 Usage Rate Leaders

He’s also doing some outstanding defensive work, as he is one of only two players averaging at least 3.5 tackles and interceptions per 90 (the other being Servando Carrasco). And this is the big one for a team married to the high press: McCarty is the league leader among outfield players in recoveries per 90 at 12.4. No other outfield player is averaging even 11 per 90 minutes.

Klejstan, Felipe, and McCarty will look to continue their outstanding play against the LA Galaxy on Sunday night (5 pm ET; ESPN2/ESPN Deportes/WatchESPN) in what is sure to be an exciting matchup between two long-time combatants. Another strong performance from the midfield trio, and the Red Bulls just may extend their unbeaten start to six games. 

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