HARRISON, N.J. — He was one of the most productive playmakers in MLS, spending the first half of the season as the league’s assists leader.
Until he wasn’t.
The second half of the regular season and the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs saw a severe dip in Kaku’s assist total. The New York Red Bulls paid a club-record transfer fee to Huracan in Argentina for him to be a consistent setup man for Bradley Wright-Phillips, but Kaku had no assists in the final 13 regular-season games and only one in the club’s four playoff contests.
At the club’s end-of-season availability at Red Bull Arena on Monday, Kaku said the space he thrived in during the first half of the season wasn’t there in the second half, with opponents marking the Paraguayan international tighter.
“First, I feel since I was new to the league, not many people knew me and that’s why they weren’t marking me as much and I was able to get as many assists,” Kaku said through a translator. “But even later on when I wasn’t getting [assists], it wasn’t that I wasn’t put in opportunities, it’s that it wasn’t getting converted.”
Kaku also said he found it easier to combine with Florian Valot, before he went down with a season-ending knee injury. And later in the year, head coach Chris Armas had him playing higher up the field, much closer to Wright-Phillips, than where he was deployed under Jesse Marsch.
“The message always tactically, even this last game, is stay on the backline which puts you closer to the goal, closer to Brad so if he starts drifting in spaces that becomes a little tougher to do that,” Armas said.
Armas’ biggest point about Kaku was that he never stopped being the playmaker, again pointing towards the chances created in a 1-0 loss in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Columbus Crew SC.
“We weren't great with the ball as a team in terms of creating chances, but he puts together three,” Armas said. “So was he not creating chances? I would say that he was creating chances.”
Plus, late in the season and in the playoffs, Armas noted, scoring chances are harder to come by.
“Towards the end of the year I think we all know that games are tougher, spaces are tighter so maybe that's another factor,” Armas said. “If we sat longer we can think more about why the assists didn’t come, but certainly it wasn't for a lack of quality from his part, lack of playing time from his part, a lack of good options around him.”
Perhaps there’s a correlation, but Wright-Phillips went goalless in the final two games of the regular season and through all four of the club’s playoff games. It marked the first postseason the veteran forward hasn’t scored a goal since joining the club midway through the 2013 season.
Still, Wright-Phillips wasn’t looking for any scapegoats.
“It’s football. That’s what happens. He had an amazing start to the season and people started game-planning for him and it gets difficult,” Wright-Phillips said. “That’s when he needs someone to step up and get some assists. Just because he started well doesn’t mean he has to do that all season and all the time. He’s on a team. Someone else has to take that up and try and help out.”