With the MLS All-Star Game complete, it’s time to hand out some grades on the season’s (slightly more than) first half.
The New York Red Bulls entered the 2019 season as the defending Supporters Shield winners, again. The 2018 edition of RBNY racked up 71 points from 34 regular season matches to edge Atlanta United for the right to raise the Shield.
Unfortunately for New York’s MLS originals, Major League Soccer does not decide its champion via the regular season, as in the European and South American model. MLS “Americanized” the sport with a playoff system that it has employed since the Red Bulls were known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars back in the inaugural 1996 season.
The Red Bulls are only too familiar with this wrinkle. They’ve claimed the Supporters Shield three times: 2013, 2015, and 2018. Still, they have not once earned the right to call themselves MLS Cup champions.
All of which is to say that a run to the MLS Cup Final would render the following grades as meaningless, an eventuality that would likely please the majority of the Red Bulls.
We will grade by position with comments on the individual players.
Red Bulls captain Luis Robles has been one of the best keepers in MLS since he took over for an injured Ryan Meara in 2012. His leadership role since taking over ultimately led to Robles earning the captain’s armband.
Meara is still around serving as Robles’ backup, and the Yonkers, N.Y. native may well be the best number two in the league.
Last season, the Red Bulls conceded just 33 goals in a 34 game season, numbers that have proved impossible to duplicate in 2019. After Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Columbus, the Red Bulls have surrendered that same amount, 33 goals, in just 23 games.
Robles has played in all but one of those matches, and while the fault lies primarily with the Red Bulls defense, the goalkeeper must also accept a share of the responsibility.
Injuries and international call ups have played a role in the decline of the Red Bulls defense. So too has some poor individual play. The Gold Cup deprived coach Chris Armas of three of his back four, with fullbacks Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica), Michael Murillo (Panama), and Aaron Long (USA) all missing time for the Gold Cup. Long’s center back partner Tim Parker has had some minor injury issues to deal with, and Lawrence missed the beginning of the campaign through injury.
The Red Bulls defensive depth has been severely tested and has fared ok. When Amro Tarek has more starts (17) and more minutes (1,388) than Aaron Long (13 & 1,125) and when Connor Lade has started just one game less than Kemar Lawrence, then your defense will suffer.
Which isn’t to say that Tarek and Lade have been bad. They haven’t. And fullback Kyle Duncan and central defender Sean Nealis have stepped in with some good performances when called upon, too.
But the rock solid certainty of New York’s defense from 2018, the defense that featured Murillo and Lawrence on the wings and Long and Parker in the middle, with Tyler Adams and Sean Davis patrolling in front of them, is gone.
Armas has shuffled players, shifting in and out of a three back and four back formation. The results have been decent. However, the uncertainty surrounding the Red Bulls defense is reflected in the team’s goals allowed stats and in the Eastern Conference Standings, where the Red Bulls sit fifth.
Replacing the indefatigable Tyler Adams was never going to be easy for the Red Bulls, even for a team that barely missed a beat when Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty moved on over the past couple of seasons.
The Red Bulls task was further complicated by Kaku’s flirtation with a failed transfer to Mexican powerhouse Club America. This led to the team talisman’s subsequent slow start. Kaku has since corrected course but none of the potential Adams replacements has come close to providing what the current RB Leipzig man brought last season.
Most of the minutes in Adams’ old spot alongside Sean Davis in the center of the park have fallen to Marc Rzatkowski. 19-year-old Venezuelan Cristian Cásseres Jr. has shown promised and seen considerable time as well.
Without Adams around to cover his customary huge tracts of land, some of that workload has fallen to a willing Davis. He has seen his assist total drop from eight in 2018 to just two so far this year.
Kaku’s assist numbers are also way down, continuing a trend that began in the second half of last season. In just 12 starts to date in 2019, the Argentinian born, Paraguayan international has contributed just three goals and four assists, leaving the Red Bulls struggling for creativity.
That has increased the pressure on the Red Bulls fabled press to cause counter-attack providing turnovers. Hard working wingers Daniel Royer and Alex Muyl, who has doubled as a wing-back, can be disruptive forces for opponents to deal with and Royer is a reliable scoring option this year (eight goals and six assists).
20-year-old Bronx native Omir Fernandez has two goals and two assists as an attacking midfielder. The rookie Homegrown prospect has been used off the bench in 11 of his 14 appearances this season.
After a good showing at the Gold Cup for Haiti, midfielder/forward Derrick Ettienne returned to Harrison, New Jersey brimming with confidence and looking to solidify a place for himself in Armas’ rotation. Ettienne has scored just one goal in 10 appearances (4 starts) for New York this year. If he can show some consistency, Ettienne could play a bigger role down the stretch for the Bulls.
Bradley Wright-Phillips has only recently returned from a long injury spell that created a goal-scoring vacuum for a team that has been overly reliant on him the past couple of seasons.
Goals were hard to come by when BWP went down until 23- year -old striker Brian White found the range and Royer found his shooting boots.
But it has been Brian White, the 16th pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft out of Duke, that has essentially saved the Red Bulls season. White enters the All-Star break tied with Royer for the team lead with eight goals and murmurings of a call up to USMNT’s January Camp.
Armas likens White’s game to BWP. There is something to that, as both strikers do their best work close to goal. Of course, White has much to accomplish before he can be ranked anywhere near Wright-Phillips, the all-time leading goal scorer in New York Red Bulls history with 108.
Armas has been slowly integrating Wright-Phillips back into the lineup. How he and White gel could have a say in how the Bulls finish up this season.
Team Grade: C+
If this seems harsh keep in mind the Red Bulls success from last season. Injuries and absences have played a role but fifth place (at the moment) is a big fall from first.
How Oddsmakers view the Red Bulls’ season to date
Oddsmakers agree with our assessment of the Red Bulls to date. After starting the season as one of the three favorites to win the MLS Cup, New York now have the 11th best odds.
They’re priced at +2000 on DraftKings Sportsbook NJ. That’s the same as Minnesota United.