NEW YORK – Sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference just before the midway point of the season is not exactly where the New York Red Bulls want to be. But they aren't panicking over their subpar start to the year.
In fact, the club still thinks the best is yet to come.
The Red Bulls, by their lofty standards, have struggled out of the gates in 2017. They currently have a 7-7-2 record that has them over the red line in the East, but only by two points. New York have had uncharacteristic struggles in the attack (scoring just 17 goals in 16 games), continuously committed defensive blunders that have cost them points, and overall been as inconsistent as they have been in recent memory.
While plenty of fans and observers are concerned about the direction of the team and its trademark tactics, the Red Bulls themselves are remaining confident about the road ahead. They know there is room for improvement right now, but believe things will ultimately change for better.
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“I think this is building, it’s building something important in our team,” said Red Bulls assistant coach Chris Armas on Tuesday. “I’m not going to sit here and say that we’re playing great. We’re not. We know exactly what we are and where we stand. We know we have to be sharper and better at what we do, [but] we’re three years into this. We’re not sneaking up on anybody, so teams know what we’re going to do.
“In some ways, they have been effective, but I think within our team there is still a lot of belief at what we do.”
Opposing teams have indeed grown more familiar with the Red Bulls’ aggressive approach and adjusted accordingly. Some clubs have refused to try and build out of the back in an effort to avoid turnovers in dangerous parts of the field, while others have focused on shutting down the dangerous duo of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan with physical play.
Of course, the offseason loss of midfield anchor Dax McCarty has not helped New York. Without McCarty, the club has found it tough to circulate the ball from the back to the front as quickly and accurately as it used to. That has resulted in fewer quality chances, fewer goals, and seven wins in 16 matches.
“We haven’t been able to sustain possession maybe deep enough to find those third-line passes, to find me and Brad, so I’ve been dropping back a little bit deeper to try and get on the ball,” said Kljestan, the New York playmaker who has yet to score a goal this season.
Head coach Jesse Marsch might, however, have found a solution to the problem in the Red Bulls’ 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Union this past weekend. After struggling to leave their imprint in the first half, New York had Kljestan and Felipe change positions in midfield at the start of the second half. Felipe occupied Kljestan’s usual No. 10 role while the American veteran dropped further back to pick up the ball and help move it forward.
It worked – though it must be noted that the Union going down to 10 men shortly after halftime also benefited the Red Bulls a ton.
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen throughout the course of the season, if me and Felipe are going to swap, or how we’re going to rotate things, but I thought it was pretty good,” said Kljestan. “I played for five years at Anderlecht as a box-to-box midfielder. I feel very comfortable in that spot. At the highest level, that’s probably my best position, so we’ll see.
“If Jesse asks me to play as a box-to-box midfielder, I still think I’ll be one of the best box-to-box midfielders in MLS.”
Regardless of who lines up where, New York need to avoid turning in another subpar performance this weekend. An afternoon date with cross-river rival New York City FC awaits on Saturday, and the Red Bulls will likely have to be sharp across the field in order to prove that they are finally taking serious steps in the right direction.
“It’s weird. We’re good one week, and then we’re not so good another week,” said Wright-Phillips. “I think we obviously made [personnel] changes, and it’s hard to get a rhythm. I think the last two games we’ve kind of had a rhythm, but I feel like I said that two weeks ago. I just want to see if we’ve cracked it this time. I know this is the kind of team once we do get on a roll, we’re very hard to stop.”