New York Red Bulls, a team certainly on the preseason radar but far from the foremost blip, has moved forward with zero regard for the presumed mindset of a team “a year away” and decided to become a full-out ded gum war machine now rather than later with no concern for the timetable most of us had laid in front of them.
Before the season opened on March 10 it appeared Red Bulls were among the cadre of teams in “rebuild mode”. Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty left in 2017, and New York went even further to dismantle the common core NYRB’s fans had become accustomed to in the 2018 offseason. 32-year-old Sacha Kljestian and 27-year-old Felipe both left Harrison to make way for young talent. And they are young. Red Bulls entered the season with youngest roster in MLS — despite fielding 33-year-old Bradley Wright-Phillips up top — at an average age of 24 years and two months. But unlike most teams in the midst of a rebuild, the talent is performing well beyond its adolescence.
The top performer in the Red Bulls back line this season is likely its youngest member. 22-year-old right back Michael Murrillo bookends the back four along with 25-year-old Kemar Lawrence. Murillo’s 2.4 tackles per game lead Red Bulls’ players with more than 400 minutes played. Lawrence leads in interceptions with 2.5 per game. Murillo and Lawrence are generally flanked by a pair of 25-year-old center backs in Aaron Long and Tim Parker, a piece of the trade that sent Felipe away from Harrison and to Vancouver.
25-year-old Sean Davis and 19-year-old future USMNT superstar Tyler Adams are the “2” in manager Jesse Marsch’s 4-2-3-1 and have undertaken the task of replacing Felipe with general ease. Davis averages 2.1 tackles per game and the same number of interceptions per game next to Adams’ 2.3 tackles per game and 2 interceptions as Marsch tasks them with, you know, wrecking fools in the middle of the field.
The advance midfield features newly added young-DP Alejandro Romero Gamarra a.k.a. Kaku (yes they’re the same person please don’t get confused) playing centrally. The 23-year-old has been productive. According to American Soccer Analysis (ASA), Kaku averages .49 expected goals plus expected assists per 96 minutes and 3.51 expected goals and assists overall. While that falls just short of Kljestan’s current production in Orlando, Kaku’s output positions him as a more than adequate replacement in the middle of the field without having to deal with all the things that make Kljestan the most insufferable human on the planet not named Will Johnson. Kaku has three goals and four assists on the season, tying him for second and first on the team respectively.
Although 21-year-old Derrick Etienne is a regular part of the squad and often the first player of the bench (seven substitution appearances), the Red Bulls have received most of their production on the wing from 25-year-old Florian Valot on the right and practical dinosaur in Red Bulls’ years, 27-year-old Daniel Royer on the left. Valot has three goals and three assists on the year, and his expected goals plus expected assists total sits at 3.17, good for fourth on the team. He stays busy on the right side, as 45% of Red Bulls’ possession occurs in that third of the field, the highest number in the league. Royer’s output is lower with only two goals scored this season, but his .54 expected goals per 96 minutes ranks third among all attacking midfielders according to ASA.
And then there’s 33-year-old uber-dinosaur Bradley Wright-Phillips who hasn’t missed a beat waiting for a young team to settle in. BWP has six goals and four assists on the season and is seventh in expected goals per 96 minutes (.68) among forwards with more than 400 minutes played, as well as third in expected goals plus assists per 96 minutes (1.16). In short, he’s good.
All this to say that young legs, productive attacking mids and a stunningly efficient Wright-Phillips have allowed the team to fully buy into Marsch’s high octane, gegenpressing-esque system to dominant effect. The Red Bulls’ expected goal differential per game of .90 is the highest in the league. They’re second in both expected goals per game (2.13) and expected goals allowed per game (1.13), and much of it stems from their ability to dispossess teams and quickly and directly attack after the fact from high quality positions. According to ASA’s Joseph Lowery, “RBNY have allowed the lowest PctA (pass completion percentage against) with just 69.2% and the second lowest xPctA (expected pass completion percentage against based on how and where the passes were attempted) with 74.2%.” They cut off passing lanes efficiently and swarm the ball in possession. In short, it’s really freaking hard to move the ball against them.
When they get the ball, it’s almost instantly going vertically towards Wright-Phillips or another attacker. The swift turnaround time leads to an abundance of one-on-ones with the keeper and chances directly in front of goal. Red Bulls have scored the most goals inside the six-yard-box in MLS and average 1.1 goals inside the six per game on a team that averages the most goals per game period. The next closest team averages .7.
Atlanta is going to be pressed to hell and back by a young team implementing a brutal playing style coming off wins of 3-2, 4-0 and 2-1. New York enters as perhaps the biggest threat to a Supporters’ Shield in the Eastern Conference and the antithesis to the Western Conference’s biggest challengers to the shield, Sporting Kansas City, who came into Atlanta and took a 2-0 win from the Five Stripes last Wednesday and thrive off a possession-based, shoot-at-every-available-opportunity style. Atlanta is going up against the soccer version of a man on cocaine trying to beat you to death with a blunt object and, if the numbers are indication, it’s going to take a hell of an effort to make it out alive.