HANOVER, N.J. – As the regular season approaches its final act, the New York Red Bulls are still tinkering away with their end product.
Just one win away from claiming a second Supporters’ Shield in three years, the Red Bulls have been one of the more consistent teams in MLS and may soon be rewarded for their fine form over the course of 34 matches. Yet entering Sunday’s #DecisionDay clash with the Chicago Fire (7 pm ET; ESPN3), head coach Jesse Marsch has somewhat surprisingly failed to settle on his first-choice starting lineup.
Throughout the season, injuries and international call-ups have necessitated some form of roster turnover from week to week, with the backline often the area of the field in constant flux.
Aside from goalkeeper Luis Robles – who has played 90 minutes in 105 consecutive regular season games, the longest active streak in MLS – the defensive core has seen several pieces interchange in 2015. And after seemingly settling on an in-form Connor Lade at right back, Marsch has turned to winger-turned-fullback Sal Zizzo in New York’s last two matches. Zizzo figures to once again start on Sunday.
“Not an easy decision,” Marsch admitted. “I think Connor has had a really good season for us. It’s just trying to balance where we are with different guys and what we think our needs are for our team tactically and the quality that different players have and what they bring.”
Zizzo’s pace makes him an attractive option to cope with the Fire’s abundance of speed down the wings, a tact that has proven to be effective against New York’s high press. Still, the Red Bulls head coach finds himself questioning his lineup choices at times.
“I’m not always sure that not having Connor on the field is the right thing,” Marsch added. “Our record with Connor is very good, and he’s done very well against a lot of good players that he’s matched up against.”
In truth, Marsch has had a few difficult decisions to make on his backline. Just as center back Ronald Zubar returned to full fitness, Matt Miazga has returned from suspension to give his head coach something to think about. Yet at the end of the day, the problem is still a good one to have.
“Now we have three center backs that we absolutely know we can count on,” Marsch said. “It’s another good situation to be in, but it’s a decision that really torments me in trying to figure out whom to put on the field. In the end, I can’t make a wrong decision. Whether it’s with Connor and Sal or our three center backs, I can’t make a wrong decision, so that’s a good position to be in.”
At this late juncture in the season, the amount of uncertainty on their backline could figure to be an issue. But to a man, each player within the Red Bulls locker room has given a vote of confidence to the next man up.
“One thing that the second half of our season has shown the entire league is that we have depth – quality depth,” Robles told MLSsoccer.com. “We feel confident and comfortable with whoever’s in there. Obviously one of my main roles is to organize and stay on top of things, but that doesn’t change no matter who’s in there.”
A constant in the starting XI, midfielder Felipe preached a similar message.
“Every guy in this team can play,” he said. “Anyone can step in and show their quality. And anyone who steps on the field, we know they’ll give everything for the team, so it doesn’t change anything for us.”