HANOVER, N.J. – After an exit just short of MLS Cup last season, the New York Red Bulls return as the top seed in the Eastern Conference this season, a team determined to play their style. This, even as they boast more weapons than last year, when they won the Supporters' Shield.
The criticism of the Red Bulls in 2015 was that they were too dogmatic, stuck in the style and tactics from the regular season, to their detriment in the Eastern Conference Championship. In that series against Columbus Crew SC, they saw a side that played more direct, evading their high press and stretching the Red Bulls' back four. In many ways they appeared ill-equipped to deviate from their game plan.
Now, the Red Bulls believe the lessons from last year and a deeper squad can lead them to MLS Cup. Yet they aren’t going to change what brought them this far and has made them back-to-back Eastern Conference champions.
“We’ll alter things to make sure we’re ready for whatever the game will look like. And we’ve done a little bit more of that this year,” head coach Jesse Marsch said this week.
“This year we’ve altered things – we found that’s been beneficial in terms of creating the kind of game that we want. At the same time, we will stick to what we do and who we are. There are always modifications but there’s no change in philosophy or approach."
Last year when the Red Bulls went down early at Columbus in the first leg, it seemed like there was very little they could do in terms of a spark or changing things up, including altering the formation.
There was limited attacking depth in 2015; this year the Red Bulls have internationals such as summer signings Omer Damari and Daniel Royer, not to mention Designated Player Gonzalo Veron and an emerging star in Sean Davis.
Tactically, they have tinkered with a seldom-seen 4-2-2-2 formation, not just in preseason but in certain moments this season, giving them a different look for late in matches, something they really couldn’t or wouldn’t do last year.
“I think we’re more complete in a lot of ways. And that’s due to altering some of the tactics, to incorporating more different players to looking at different formations at times. Again just have the ability to approach games differently based on what our opponent presents and then try to mitigate what they want to do and how they do it,” Marsch said. “Then put the game on our terms.”
Most of last year’s Supporters' Shield-winning side, a group that stunned MLS a year ago in Marsch’s first year as their head coach, returned this season. They understand the system and the high press, and in turn Marsch has a better feel for the team, noting that he’s changed things up at times this year such as days off to give his squad not just physical but also mental breaks.
For a team that hasn’t lost since July 3 across all competitions, it remains to be seen if the Red Bulls will again fall before reaching the MLS Cup final. But as midfielder Sacha Kljestan said on Wednesday, he thinks this team still can find “another level to get to – I think we still have one more notch where we can turn it up a little bit more.
“I think we’re in a better spot right now then we were at the end of last season. I think we’re a better team; this is year two of a lot of the same guys being together,” Kljestan added. “We found a way to be unbeatable in 20 games, which is a big deal for us. We go into every game knowing that it is very hard for teams to beat us and teams are going into very hard games against us.”