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New York Red Bulls: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of Defeat

New York Red Bulls
COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 02: New York Red Bulls celebrate a goal during the match between the New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on March 3, 2019. (Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. That sentence is a perfect microcosm for the 2018-19 New York Red Bulls. They were first place in the Eastern Conference with a 22-5-7 record and a +29 goal differential; a season that was bittersweet for players and fans alike.

First there was the “thrill of victory” in March after handily beating Club Tijuana 5-1 on aggregate across both legs in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. Their 2-0 victory in Tijuana marked the first time an MLS team had defeated a Liga MX side by multiple goals on Mexican soil. The “agony of defeat” soon followed after losing to Chivas Guadalajara in the semifinals in April, failing to score a goal across both legs.

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Then a mid-season coaching change saw Jesse Marsh leave New York for RB Leipzig in Germany – Tyler Adams soon followed. Assistant coach Chris Armas was promoted as Manager. Many thought Marsh’s departure would signal trouble for the club, but RBNY did not skip a beat. Red Bulls actually finished with a better record under Armas (12-3-3 with 39 points) than they did with Marsh at the helm (11-2-5 with 35 points).

Come September, the Red Bulls found themselves four points behind Atlanta in the Supporters Shield race. Red Bulls went on to take 19 of a possible 21 points over their last seven matches, including a pivotal 2-0 victory over Atlanta United in late September. That win, coupled with an Atlanta loss to Toronto FC in the final game of the season saw Red Bulls hoist their third MLS Supporters Shield trophy in six seasons. An achievement only bested by the LA Galaxy (4) and D.C. United (4).

Unfortunately, Atlanta United would have the last laugh; beating RBNY 3-1 on aggregate across two legs and advanced to the MLS Cup finals where they defeated the Portland Timbers. The short-lived thrill of winning a regular season title was again overshadowed by the agony associated with another playoff flame out. For all of their glory, New York Red Bulls have never won an MLS Cup; coming closest in 2008 when they lost to Columbus Crew in the Finals.

Key Departures: Tyler Adams , Felipe Escobar, Hassan Ndam, Anatole Abang

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Tyler Adams was sold to RB Leipzig in January for $3 million and a 33% stake on any future sale. Felipe Escobar was traded to Vancouver Whitecaps in December for Tim Parker and TAM money; he is now playing in Panama. Hassan Ndam was selected by FC Cincinnati in the 2018 MLS Expansion Draft. Anatole Abang was sold to Nantong Zhiyun FC in China following an arrest for marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia.

Key Acquisitions: Mathias Jurgensen, Omir Fernandez, Marcus Epps, Amro Tarek

Red Bulls went out and spent a reported $2.5 million on 18-year-old Danish forward Mathias Jorgensen from Odense Boldklub as the heir apparent to Wright-Phillips. Omir Fernandez is a 20-year-old homegrown academy player who decided to forego his junior year at Wake Forest University and sign a professional contract instead.

Marcus Epps joins the squad after a few years with Philadelphia Union and Bethlehem Steel in USL. Epps was released by Philadelphia after the 2018-19 season, and entered the MLS Waiver Draft where he went number one. New York coveted Epps so much they traded a second round pick in the MLS Super Draft to San Jose Earthquake in order to draft Epps.

Amro Tarek was also brought in for squad depth. Tarek is a career journeyman that spent last season on loan at Orlando City and has played for 10 different clubs in nine seasons.

Goalkeepers: Luis Robles, Ryan Meara, Evan Louru

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Robles played 31 games in 2018, saving 84 shots and keeping 14 clean sheets. Robles has been one of the best Goalkeepers in MLS since joining Red Bulls in 2012 and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Ryan Meara (currently injured) is a capable backup, saving 12 shots with one clean sheet in three starts last season. Evan Louru is a 23-year-old homegrown player with limited experience who will more than likely be loaned back to Red Bulls II at some point this season.

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Defenders: Aaron Long, Tim Parker, Michael Murillo, Kemar Lawrence, Connor Lade, Kyle Duncan, Sean Nealis, Amro Tarek

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New York was great defensively last season. The best in MLS, keeping 15 clean sheets while conceding a league-low 33 goals. With that said, the back-line will need a repeat performance if Red Bulls want to defend their Supports Shield title and win that elusive MLS Cup.

Stalwarts Aaron Long and Tim Parker was arguably the best center-back pairing in MLS in 2018-19 and both were rewarded with new 3-year contracts. Long was made team captain, named to his first MLS All-Star team, won MLS Defensive Player of the Year and received his first United States Men’s National Team call-up in October; all well deserved. Parker had his best year as a professional in 2018, making 29 starts for Red Bulls while also receiving his first USMNT call up.

New York also drafted center-back Sean Nealis from Hofstra University with the first pick (#25 overall) in the 2nd round of the MLS SuperDraft. Nealis is a 6-foot-4 New York native who won the Colonial Athletic Association’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2018. He is currently the only 2019 SuperDraft pick to receive a first-team contract with the Red Bulls, earning his roster spot in training camp. Nealis will serve as back-up to Long and Parker and has already made an impression; scoring a header from a corner kick in RBNY’s preseason match vs. Portland Timbers.

In addition to a strong central defense, fullbacks Kemar Lawrence and Michael Murillo really made names for themselves in the 2018-19 season. Lawrence contributed two goals and one assist in 28 appearances for RBNY and has been a staple for both club and country, earning 45 caps with the Jamaican National team since 2013. Still only 26 years old, Lawrence has aspirations of playing in Europe and hopes 2019 will be his “breakout” season. Murillo really came into his own, scoring a goal and adding four assists in 23 appearances. His pace, crossing ability and overall attacking prowess has made him a target for several Liga MX teams and has even peaked interest from European clubs.

Connor Lade has been starting at left-back during pre-season while Lawrence recovers from injury. Lade has been at the club since 2012, making over 100 league appearances for RBNY. Kyle Duncan was a prospect in the Red Bulls academy until 2014 when he rejected a Red Bulls II contract to play in USL and decided to join Ligue 2 French side Valenciennes FC. Duncan – former USMNT U-18 and U-20 player – returned to the club last season, but only played in four games before tearing his ACL and going on injured
reserve for the rest of the year. Both Lade, Duncan and Amro Tarek are expected to see major minutes once Murillo and Lawrence leave for Gold Cup duties.

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Midfielders: Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra, Sean Davis, Marc Rzatkowski, Florian Valot, Vincent Bezecourt, Cristian Casseres Jr, Ben Mines, Jean-Christophe Koffi

All Club America drama aside, Kaku is the key to the Red Bulls engine. Nothing starts without him. Kaku joined New York last February and had a slow start adjusting to his new teammates. By the end of the season Kaku was considered one of the best Central Attacking Midfielders in the league, scoring six goals while assisting on 14. Kaku’s ball control, vision, deft touch and composure in big moments is what separates him from most. All 6 of his goals were game winners and Kaku drew praise from the coaching
staff for his work on the defensive end as well.

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Without Adams, New York will look to Sean Davis and Marc Rzatkowski to provide cover for Kaku to roam free while their wingers get down the channels. Davis is more of a playmaking CDM, so he’ll sit deeper and carry most of the defensive responsibilities. However, Davis proved that he could make a significant impact offensively also, with eight assists in 32 appearances. Rzatkowski is more creative going forward and will serve as the “connector” for Armas’ side, looking to improve upon his two scores and seven assists in 2018-19.

Florian Valot was in the midst of a breakout campaign before an ACL tear during training ended his 2018 prematurely. Valot was limited to 14 games, but still managed to score three goals and contribute five assists. Vincent Bezecourt also had his season cut short after tearing his MCL. Both players are still working their way back to fitness, but consensus is they’ll be back soon. Valot will compete with Alex Muyl for that right midfielder spot. Bezecourt will rotate in for Davis or Rzatkowski.

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Homegrown players Ben Mines and Cristian Casseres Jr. will have to grow up faster than expected if any of the aforementioned players gets injured for an extended period of time. Mines started 2018 off with a bang, scoring a goal in his only senior appearance before being loaned out to Red Bulls II for the rest of the season. People close to the team have been talking up Casseres Jr. during preseason, comparing his style of play to that of Tyler Adams. I’m not holding my breath though.

Jean-Christophe Koffi is another promising homegrown signing. Koffi was a DC United academy product and Red Bulls purchased his rights for $75,000 in GAM and a percentage on any future sale (outside of MLS). Koffi was teammates with Derrick Etienne Jr. at the University of Virginia and figures to see some minutes at CAM while Kaku is away at Copa America.

Wingers: Daniel Royer, Alex Muyl, Derrick Etienne Jr, Andreas Ivan, Marcus Epps, Omir Fernandez

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Daniel Royer was one of the best wingers in MLS last season, finishing with 11 goals and two assists in 29 appearances. He’s a nuisance of the left wing and has the potential for an even better season with crisper finishing in the box. Alex Muyl’s work rate was unmatched at RBNY by anyone not named Tyler Adams. What he lacks in technical ability, he makes up for it in grit and determination. With that said, he’ll have to be more productive to keep Valot off the pitch.

Andreas Ivan is a 24-year-old forward/winger from Romania who joined last July after rejecting a trial with Hamburger SV in the Bundesliga. Ivan scored his first goal for New York earlier this week in CONCACAF Champions League vs. Atletico Pantoja after coming on as a sub for Wright-Phillips. Derrick Etienne Jr. scored five goals in 30 appearances last season, 21 of those coming off the bench. His role will likely remain the same. Marcus Epps and Omir Fernandez will provide depth on the wings, giving Armas a
myriad of attacking options at his disposal.

Forwards: Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mathias Jurgensen, Brian White

There’s no question as to who the talisman up front will be for RBNY. Bradley Wright-Phillips is a goal machine, scoring 20 goals last season en-route to becoming the fastest player in Major League Soccer history to reach the 100-goal mark. BWP also contributed eight assists last season after only managing one in 2017.

Newcomer Mathias Jorgensen will be deployed off the bench along with Brian White. Not much is known about Jorgensen except that he was on the radar of several European clubs, including Borussia Monchengladbach. Jurgensen turned pro at 16 years old scoring 28 goals in 24 games for OD’s U-19 squad and debuted for the first team at 17 years old. Jorgensen made 15 appearances and scored three goals for Odense Boldklub in 2018-19. Brian White was a first round selection in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft from Duke University and should figure into the equation after a successful spell with Red Bulls II, scoring 8 goals and 5 assists in 22 appearances for the USL side.

Biggest Question Marks:

It remains to be seen how Red Bulls’ high-pressing system will function without Tyler Adams in it. Adams was a key cog in the middle of the park last season. His high motor, ball-winning skills and relentless pressure provided cover for his attacking teammates, allowing them to stay forward and wait on the counter attack.

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Red Bulls hierarchy must be confident in Davis and Rzatkowski’s abilities because they did not replace Adams during the transfer window despite knowing of his exit since December. This decision may prove costly in 2019 considering RBNY will be a part of two cup competitions – US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League – in a year where both Gold Cup and Copa America are taking place.

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Red Bulls will have to make do without Kaku (Paraguay), Long (USA), Murillo (Panama) and possibly Parker (USA) and Lawrence (Jamaica) in June while those tournaments run; placing major significance on squad depth. New York will have to rely heavily on role players during league play to give their starters a respite.

Another potential issue is “father time.” BWP turns 34 years old in March and has played 37+ matches in each of his five full seasons with New York. That’s a lot of mileage on the tires for someone his age and a drop off in production is bound to happen, especially playing a full 90 minutes every week. Managing Wright-Phillips minutes should be a priority for RBNY this season and may cause Red Bulls fans some headaches considering their back-ups are very young and largely unproven.

Season Outlook:

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New York return 10 of 11 starters from their record-setting 2018-19 season. Things will get tough in June during Copa America and the Gold Cup. But Red Bulls were prepared for that, adding more depth to their roster through the transfer market, free agency, various drafts and by promoting players from their academy. If they can get through CONCACAF Champions League in March/April without any major injuries, the sky’s the limit for RBNY in 2019. Their high-pressing system is just as effective on the road as it is at home. The infusion of young talent mixed with veteran leadership have Red Bulls in great position to defend their Support Shield title and make another run at the elusive MLS Cup.

** Editor’s Note: New York Red Bulls started their 2019 season on March 2 at Columbus. **

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